Updated: Feb 18, 2019
Contrary to what you might think, you need more fights at work – not fewer.
Conflict is good. Conflict exposes our needs, desires, commitments and fears. Conflict shows us where we are strong and where we are weak. Conflict is the path to personal and organizational growth. For all of these reasons, conflict should not be simply resolved or managed. Conflict should be led. This is an essential skill for would-be transformational leaders (like you).
Learning how to “fight” at work is not about behaving badly, being hurtful or causing chaos for its own sake. It is about knowing how to lead others through the chaos of interpersonal conflict and find meaning, creativity and growth in the mess.
But…Along with snakes, public speaking and heights, few things are more terrifying to normal people than the prospect of interpersonal conflict. Like these other phobias, most people will do nearly anything to avoid conflict – especially in the workplace, where relationships are often not as safe or secure as those in your private life. You likely work with a great number of people who are not your friends, you did not choose to hire and with whom you will likely never socialize outside of the office. You might even have incredibly productive and successful work relationships with people you don’t even particularly like!
The intimate web of shared history, vulnerability and identity present in our personal relationships can make private conflict intense but also more safe and familiar. We take more risks more easily with those with whom we are intimate. These factors are rarely present as consistently, if at all, in our work relationships.
This makes conflict at work feel very risky. Contrary to what people say in the moment, most people fail to confront a colleague, not because they “don’t really care” or because “it’s no big deal”– but because it’s scary to do so with people you actually don’t know very well.
The result of this conflict avoidance is that the conflicts that do boil over at work tend to be the toxic and destructive ones that have festered for far too long. They often become toxic and destructive because multiple people (maybe you among them) saw it coming and either didn’t know what do or chose to do nothing in the hopes that the situation would magically get better on its own. That almost never works.
Time doesn’t actually heal physical or relational wounds. Only proper care and attention heals wounds. Time is only your friend if you are applying an effective treatment. Neglect plus time can equal a deadly infection in a physical wound. Neglect plus time with relational wounds can multiply misunderstandings and enable the most toxic personality tendencies to dominate. You get the point.
You need more “fights” at work because most conflicts are avoided when they are at the stage at which a mild treatment might prevent a nasty infection. You need more small conflicts that are effective, creative and short in duration.
As I discussed in Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, except for a few weirdos like me (and maybe you), most team members are unlikely to enjoy the conflict when it’s happening. So, even if it’s a very creative and constructive conflict, it’s best to keep things moving. Highly effective teams do not wallow in their strife or obsess over interpersonal dynamics. Instead, the best teams learn how to cycle rapidly through highly productive and creative conflicts – and then move on to the next challenge and task.
But what if you were the one person in nearly every work-related situation who was most comfortable and confident leading conflict? In the midst of conflict, while others were running away, melting down or boiling over – what if you knew exactly what needed to happen and had a plan and the guts to do it?
You would become tremendously valuable to that team. Regardless of your actual title, you would become a transformational leader that people would always want near them during critical moments and conversations.
However, everything worth having requires effort, pain and sacrifice. Learning to lead conflict is no different. This blog was created to help you develop this ability and provide practical advice on how to get started.