The Value Of Conflict
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The word conflict stirs up thoughts of anger, friction, mistrust, frustration, and hostility. Rarely does anyone think of conflict as a tool for deeper thinking, better results, and communication that is more dynamic. When unmanaged, team conflict can destroy cohesiveness, but teams that use conflict resolution strategies can turn their conflict into an asset. Managed conflict can promote an exchange of ideas to generate well-thought-out results, encourage team members to think outside of their own ideas, and develop deeper understanding.
Sal Capobianco, Mark Davis, and Linda Kraus attempt to dispel the myth that all conflict is bad in their article "Good conflict, bad conflict: How to have one without the other" (2004 a). In the article, they state that "some kinds of conflict result[ing] from organizational growth and change can be simply the result of new ideas being generated and debated; this kind of conflict can be invigorating, and even vitally important for the organization" (Capobianco et al, 2004, 3). The authors confirm that conflict can be a robust exchange of ideas that can breathe life into an organization or team. However, the line between productive, healthy conflict and destructive, unhealthy conflict is a thin one. Only focused conflict management strategies can keep the team on a path to success. Capobianco, Davis, and Kraus remind teams "the ultimate goal is to shape and guide conflict so as to minimize its hurtful and destructive forms, and to encourage its more positive constructive forms." (Capobianco et al, 2004, 3)
Many articles and journals contain volumes of conflict resolution techniques. Essentially, most of them boil down to five basic approaches. These five approaches are described in an article by Glenn Starks, called "Managing Conflict in Public Organizations" (2007): collaborating, compromising, accommodating, competing, and avoiding. Each of the approaches carries pros and cons. However, the only conflict management approach that truly is set to foster an exchange of ideas and work toward the best result is collaboration.
While compromising comes in as a close second to collaboration, its premise is to agree on meeting in the middle. Claire White and Greta Thornbory also write about the five approaches to conflict management in their article, "How to manage conflict and confrontation" (2007). In the article, they describe collaboration as a "lose-lose strategy, and the issue may need to be addressed again later" (White and Thornbory, 2007, 10).
The other three approaches do not foster deep thinking and do not encourage teams to exercise alternative thinking or develop a deeper understanding of the issues.
Avoiding dismisses the conflict altogether leaving the issue unresolved and the conflict essentially unmanaged. White and Greta point out "this can lead to the issue escalating and requiring greater effort in the future" (White and Thornbory, 2007, 7). The accommodation approach described by White and Greta as "agreeing to something just to keep the peace" (White and Thornbory, 2007, 8), has one or more team members not contributing to the result. Similar to accommodation, authoritarian allows one person to take control and dictate the resolution based solely on his or her power or position. This approach leaves the majority of the team feeling discontent and not included. White and Greta explain that this results in a team with "little listening, discussion, or information sharing" (White and Thornbory, 2007, 11).
The final and best approach is collaboration. This approach involves all members of the team and challenges them to contribute their ideas and thoughts in order to discover the best solution. White and Greta describe this approach as "the parties accept there is a conflict, take time to discuss the root causes, discuss different solutions, and identify the drivers and inhibitors to a resolution" (White and Thornbory, 2007, 13). Collaboration digs deeper into possible solutions, and at the same time taps into the wealth of resources and experiences of each team member. Collaboration takes more effort than the other four approaches. Each person must employ good listening and communication skills. This process will assist in dynamic conversations and exchanges of ideas. Collaboration takes much more effort and time, but the results can be well worth the investment.
One of the greatest benefits of managed conflict is collaborative teams exchange ideas. The conflict challenges its members to think outside of their own comfort zone and develop a deeper understanding of the issue. Steven Jungst, Janette Thompson and Gary Atchison support this belief in their article "Academic Controversy: Fostering constructive conflict in Natural Resources Education" (2003). They contend: "Students do, in fact, develop a better understanding of central issues as a result if having experienced [productive conflict]" (Jungst et al, 2003, 1). Lively discussions on opposing views are mini-debates on the issues. Each member expresses his or her ideas and beliefs about the topic and a proposed solution. In turn, the other members are in a position to think through others' viewpoints in order to defend their own perspective or challenge the other's argument. This process results in deeper discernment of the issue. Deborah Kezsbom wrote an article called "Managing the chaos: Conflict amount project teams" (1989). In it, Kezsbom writes: "Through constructive management and appropriate resolution of conflict, it is possible to gain a broader understanding of the nature of the problem and its implications" (Kezsbom, 1989, 9).
Richard F. Bowman, Jr. wrote an article "Temptation #4: Harmony versus productive conflict" (2001) on the negative effects of too much workplace harmony. Bowman specifically addresses the positive impact constructive conflict and excessive harmonies have on workplace decisions. This article cites study after study in support of constructive conflict resulting in sound results. "A considerable body of research suggests that, where there is little conflict over issues, there is also likely to be poor decision making" (Bowman, 2001, 2). Too much harmony can lead to a decision that has not been tested or challenged. Too often, that decision will be challenged later, and in some cases, it has already caused irreparable damage. "Lack of conflict can be a problem; for example when a team is formed to solve a complex issue, but lack of differing ideas and opinions (groupthink) leads to suboptimal solutions or none at all" (Starks, 2006, p.56).
Team conflict has the potential to be a dynamic asset if the team chooses to manage it properly. Decisions are a result of team conflict "are reached primarily by consensus and represent synergy of the most positive aspects of the group's total solutions" (Kezsbom, 1989, p.A.4.3). Furthermore, a team's energy can be elevated to produce an experience that is more vibrant for its members. The periodical Bulletpoint ran a cover story called "The Trouble with Teams" (1995). The article summed up what teams who employ constructive conflict can expect: "Effective teams increase productivity, raise morale, [and] spur innovation" (The Trouble with Teams, 1995, 1). The experts agree that managed conflict can be a positive factor in a team's performance and results. Moreover, team members can personally benefit by expanding their minds to new ideas outside of their own and develop a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
Bowman, R.F., Jr. (2001). Temptation #4: Harmony versus productive conflict. The Educational Forum, 65 (3), 221. Retrieved January 18, 2008, from ProQuest Education Journals database. (Document ID: 71779075).
Capobianco, S., Davis, M., & Kraus, L. (2004, July). Good conflict, bad conflict: How to have one without the other. Mt Eliza Business Review, 7(2), 31. Retrieved January 18, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 878901101).
Jungst, S., Thompson, J., & Atchison, G. (2003). Academic Controversy: Fostering Constructive Conflict in Natural Resources Education. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 32, 36. Retrieved January 18, 2008, from ProQuest Biology Journals database. (Document ID: 522925161).
Kezsbom, D. (1989). Managing The Chaos: Conflict Among Project Teams. American Association of Cost Engineers. Transactions of the American Association of Cost Engineers ,9. Retrieved January 18, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 1397816).
The Trouble With Teams. (Cover story). (1995, January). Bulletpoint, Retrieved January 17, 2008, from Business Source Complete database.
White, C., & Thornbory, G. (2007, November). HOW TO manage conflict and confrontation. Occupational Health, 59(11), 26-26. Retrieved January 18, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.