Transforming conflict into a source of inspiration

Conflict is a sign that different viewpoints and ideas are being considered, combined, and strengthened. But, if you are like most people, expressing conflict constructively is a serious challenge. For the sake of your team’s collective genius, it’s time to master this delicate but powerful skill. Excerpt from the latest issue of Business Digest:


1. What is constructive conflict?
Clarity, or how directly and explicitly conflict is expressed, and oppositional intensity, or the sharpness of the divide between opposing viewpoints, are the two key determining factors of whether the outcome of a conflict will be constructive or destructive. Debate, characterized by direct, low-intensity conflict expression, tends to have the most constructive outcomes of any form of conflict expression. Its opposite — undermining, characterized by indirect, high-intensity conflict expression — tends to have the most destructive outcomes. Unfortunately, the latter is the most common form of conflict expression in today’s workplaces!

2. Being direct in conflict situations
When you communicate with directness, others are able to grasp immediately what your specific issue or criticism is. To increase your directness in conflict situations:
• Don’t say something if you don’t really mean it; for example, don’t say someone’s idea is “interesting” for diplomacy’s sake if you actually think it is unhelpful.
• Focus on the idea, or work, rather than the person
• Speak directly to the person with whom you disagree rather than to someone else
• Voice criticisms in person whenever possible. Telephone, email, and text are all easily misinterpreted.

3. Decreasing intensity of expression
Oppositional intensity is the degree of force, strength or energy with which you convey your opposition. High-intensity conflict expression often leads to communication breakdowns, because the opposing parties cannot find common ground. Be careful not to confuse low-intensity expression with robotic lack of emotion; on the contrary, low-intensity expression can be highly emotional — it just can’t be dictatorial, inflexible, or dogmatic.

Conflict inspires creativity at Pixar
An unexpected scheduling conflict at Pixar in the summer of 2008 illustrates that conflict can inspire incredible innovation, as long as people are able to manage their emotions and remain constructively focused on identifying the best possible solutions. Greg Brandeau, then head of technology, recounts what he describes as “one of the most unnerving times” that he and his team ever experienced at Pixar: “We were so depressed about being caught in a situation we didn’t make that we talked about letting Cars Toons crash and burn. But that was frustration talking and definitely not in our nature. We actually cared about not letting the rest of the studio down. There were colleagues who were counting on us. So we pressed on.”

Based on “Kristin Behfar on How We Fight, and Why It Matters,” by Laura W. Geller (Strategy+Business, March 2015 and “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Saving Workplace Relationships,” by Kristin J. Behfar (Darden School of Business, July 2014); Collective Genius by Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback (Harvard Business Review Press, June 2014); The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz (HarperCollins, March 2014); “Innovator Interview: HBO’s Shelley Brindle” (futurethink, 2013); “Difficult Coworker? One Quick Way to Turn the Relationship Around” by Sabina Nawaz (Forbes, February 2015); “How to Deal With a Coworker You Can’t Stand,” by Gwen Moran (Fast Company, January 2015); “How to Improve Your Relationships at Work,” by Nicole Liloia (Forbes, December 2014); “How to deal with difficult people at work,” by Corinne Mills (The Guardian, November 2014).

Watch the video:

BizBasics: “Workplace Venting” with Kristin Behfar

Kristin Behfar explains how to respond constructively when someone vents to you (noting that employees vent to others at work an average of four times a day!).