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John Amaechi OBE

Without friction there's no movement

07 September 2018 | by John Amaechi OBE

Earlier this week the BPS hosted a masterclass on how best to manage, avoid, and resolve conflict in the workplace, and we are now pleased to be able to provide this follow-up article by John Amaechi OBE, on the differences between "constructive" and "destructive" forms of conflict.

I am a big fan of conflict in the workplace. After all, without friction there is no movement.

Of course I perhaps should be quick to add that I mean “constructive” rather than “destructive” conflict, although I feel this distinction is often a function of the degree of skill in the early identification, objective description, and analysis of the precursor elements of conflict, rather than something intrinsic to conflict it and of itself.

I have witnessed situations in the workplace where what appear to be looming, doom-laden disputes and disagreements are resolved, through robust management, into incredibly positive and precedent-setting outcomes.

I have seen people hold their collective breath as organisational tenets are challenged, only to see weaknesses exposed and eradicated and the newly formed principles set a new best-practice standard.

These are constructive outcomes born from a potentially destructive conflict.

At the moment, however, a far more pervasive problem than there being “too much” conflict is a culture that prioritises a form of superficial cordiality over authentic conflict of any kind.

These are workplaces where they conflate “treating their people well” with “not saying anything that challenges anyone – at least to their face”.

This avoidance of interpersonal conflict is toxic. It is functionally counter to everything we know about sustainable performance in that it allows bad ideas and organisational bad habits to flourish, unchallenged, for fear of being seen to ‘create conflict’, and allows poor performance to persist without feedback to shape it, all in the name of politeness or courtesy.

It leads colleagues to believe that passive-aggressive cliques that whisper behind people’s backs, or the heavy handed utilisation of HR policy to “solve” conflicts that should only have needed an interpersonal light touch, are better than directly addressing an issue and, even when bad behaviour does surface, this fear of conflict means problems which should have been dealt with in their early stages are frequently allowed to metastasise and threaten the entire organisation before they are actually addressed.

A fear of conflict – or more properly in my experience, the unwillingness of leaders to sacrifice personal comfort to enhance-through-challenge a colleague or an entire organisation’s insight, understanding or trajectory – can create a deep-seated lack of trust and a corresponding lack of assurance in the decisions of leaders and committees because people know these decisions are the result of a process that lacks robust interrogation.

We can create robustly challenging, psychologically safe workplaces where conflict is seen as an essential component of sustained success, but we need to train our leaders right from their first line-management job with tools to ensure they don’t shy away from conflict and that they can manage conflict to ensure optimal outcomes.

We must also be explicit about the fact that ultimately, successful workplaces will embrace, if not always enjoy, conflict as a means to deliver the best ideas to fruition.

I think we need to stop giving so much credence to the idea of “difficult conversations” and “burdensome conflict” and focus, laser-like, on the fact many of these interactions are only challenging in the context of the deficient management skills of those bound to have them.

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