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Can Conflict Be Healthy and Fun?

conflict2Last year I asked whether your culture enabled bad behavior. As an example, I cited Logan Shrine, former Intel employee and author of Losing Faith, who said that said that the Intel culture of “constructive confrontation was a license for assholes to be assholes and express themselves… It wasn’t there to police them, but to give people carte blanche to express those behaviors.” I went on to say that, as a former Intel employee myself, I saw many great collaborative decisions come about thanks to the practice, but that I’d also seen bullies hide behind the cultural sacred cow and create an environment of fear and self-doubt.

Lately the topic of confrontation in the workplace has experienced a renaissance of sorts, thanks in part to Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Number two on the dysfunctions list is fear of conflict. For a team to be effective, Lencioni says, there must be what he calls productive ideological conflict.

Ultimately, confrontation is like fire; the application determines its value. So what is it about confrontation that—when properly applied—makes it so valuable? Here’s one thought: Grove’s constructive confrontation and Lencioni’s productive ideological conflict share something in common: both put expert power ahead of legitimate or position power.

Legitimate or position power basically says that the highest-placed person on the organizational chart wins. As one person once put it, it’s the HIPPO in the room—the highest-paid person’s opinion. When position power directs group discussions, what one sees is a process of discovering the leader’s opinion on the subject and then aligning one’s own position to mirror that of the leader. When position power rules, conflict can result in political infighting and turf wars. Expert power, by contrast, proposes that the most expert and experienced opinion it the room wins—or better still—the opinion that reflects the combined experience of the participants. Notice that in this case, power doesn’t reside with just one person. Assuming that you have the right people in the room, everyone’s expertise can shed greater light on what is likely a complex, multi-dimensional challenge.

One of the problems with conflict is that it’s associated with ugliness, strife, contention, even violence—things we generally try to avoid. The idea of inviting conflict into the workplace can then seen ludicrous. But what if we were to view conflict as that which occurs when to variances come together, such as two different ideas? That’s much less daunting. Next, we need a simple, inclusive process to help us bridge these variances, one that allows everyone—from the analytical to the emotive, the new to the experienced, the optimistic to the pessimistic—to participate unfettered.

One process you can try is six hats brainstorming. In your next group discussion, have everyone wear each of these hats for five minutes, and see where the conversation may lead:

  • White Hat: Just the facts
    • Let the analysis of the factual data set the foundation. See what is really known and unknown.
  • Red Hat: Emotions, hunches, intuition
    • With the data in hand, now look at what your gut says. Facts be damned; what does your experience and intuition tell you?
  • Black Hat: Why this is a bad idea
    • Even the greatest idea has cons; list them out. Don’t just pay it lip service. This is where being a critical skeptic comes into its own.
  • Yellow Hat: Why this is a great idea
    • With the dire predictions set, now go the other way and come up with all the reasons why this is a fabulous idea.
  • Green Hat: Ideas, where this could lead
    • Consider where different decisions could take you, what they may mean for the future. What are the ripples in the pond that may result?
  • Blue Hat: Process to decide and implement
    • Discuss what would be required to implement the idea. Everything has a price; is this a price worth paying?

Processes such as this can provide a structure around which you can allow conflict to find the best solution while providing a safe and validating work environment.

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