Leading Conflict in the Workplace

“It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry”. Thomas Paine.

The Status Quo can be comfortable. Leadership is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Leaders institute change; They champion it; They cultivate it. Both a tool to implement and an outcome of change is conflict. As a leader you need to learn how to cultivate conflict in the workplace.

It gets messy. Religious debates are usually avoided for good reason. But you need to dive in. Tool X versus Tool Y. The good minds on your team will engage. They will have an opinion. An educated, informed, experienced opinion. And that is the ‘Gold’ you are mining for.

Let them argue. Encourage it. Don’t be afraid of it.
You are a professional. Set the ground rules. Keep emotion out. Keep personal attacks out. Stick to the facts. Don’t shred a person with an idea. You need to keep the proponents of an idea that doesn’t make it through the gauntlet engaged for future bouts.
Don’t let it get mean. We recently learned how Amazon (see notes) take this sort of pecking party to a dysfunctional level. You don’t want to go there. (You want to make money too, something Amazon haven’t found a way to do.)
But the debate is what you want. Process A versus Process B. Crack the whip management versus Coaching & Mentoring. Central control versus pushing authority down to the Business Unit or Line staff. Structured approach versus managed Agile chaos. In-House versus Contracted Services. On-shore versus Off-shore. Buy versus Partner. There are a hundred debates and a Leader knows how to begin the debate, manage it, and then structure a process to get to a decision and take action.

Shakespeare had Coriolanus say ‘Action is Eloquence’.

You will encounter opposition. Organizations have inertia and moving them in a new direction takes work. (See Newton’s Second Law link below) Your greatest enemy will not be someone who wants the organization to fail. It will be the mediocre performer who doesn’t care. It will be the Middle manager bureaucrat that wants to hide his head in the sand. The person who thinks we should all just get along.

This is not for the faint hearted. It is a challenge. It is hard. It can be exhausting. And there will be tears. But it can also be fulfilling, rewarding and exhilarating to see change instituted and growth and action prevail.

Just a steel is tempered, made stronger and less brittle by passing through the crucible, so too will your team and your ideas be made stronger by the conflict of vigorous debate and peer review. Embrace it.

PS. Initial reviewers have pointed out an assumption I didn’t call out. You need to have spoken to whoever you report to before going down this road. To an outsider it can look like pandemonium. Your Director, VP, President (who ever) can give you the support and Air Cover you will need. You will also find out whether you report to a Bureaucrat or a Leader. You really need to know.

Notes & further reading