An organization that encourages constructive conflict is better at solving problems and improving systems.
|Cary Gutbezahl, M.D.|
You have to avoid conflict within your organization to get things done. That's what most of us are used to. We have learned to fight for issues that are important to us, but avoid getting involved in issues that aren't. And we expect the same of others. That's how we foster teamwork. But it's more a characteristic of losing teams than winning teams to ignore problems and avoid conflict.
Avoidance of conflict is neither healthy nor productive when the conflict is over sincere differences of opinion about solving problems. Instead, allowing team members to disagree often leads to the best solutions and the most productive work systems.
There are two types of conflict. The undesirable and too familiar type of conflict is called relationship or affective conflict, which is based in dislike and distrust. It has a strong emotional component and manifests itself in disrespectful behavior and speech, which result in nonproductive and disruptive interactions.
The other type of conflict is called task or cognitive conflict. This type of conflict originates from differences in perspective about how to perform a task. Studies show that groups that generate task conflict and manage it well perform better than do groups that have little task conflict.
Task conflict can illuminate the overlooked issues, biases and sources of opinion differences. When teammates view problems differently, the group explores the definitions, assumptions, logic and biases that underlie the differences of opinion. In addition, oversight of important contextual factors may be identified and remedied. In effective teams, other teammates participate in the discussion to raise questions and defuse the emotions of the discussion, and to provide additional insights. Ultimately, a robust discussion yields a better solution and stronger commitment to the agreed-upon plan of action.
What happens if we don't manage task conflict well? It is likely to degenerate into relationship conflict. That's why most of us avoid generating any type of conflict. We are weary of relationship conflict and fear that we cannot control the genie after it has been released from the bottle. Unfortunately, by giving up conflict altogether, we miss the opportunity to correct planning deficiencies that originate from flawed thinking of individuals and diminish the benefit of collective minds.
Senior hospital teams are well positioned to engage in cognitive conflict. Hospital leaders are experienced executives who have distinguished themselves within their professional scope of work. Unfortunately, this means being successful within one of the hospital's professional silos. It is extremely rare for executives who work their way up the hierarchy to gain experience in another organizational silo. How often do physician executives work in finance? How often does a finance person work in radiology or nursing? Professional training and licensing are significant impediments to developing cross-training.
Yet the education and experiences of a physician, nurse or financial executive produce different points of view. More importantly, they produce different values, different assumptions about causation and possibilities, and meaning attached to beliefs. These differences can produce arguments but if managed properly, the arguments can produce insights.
Constructive conflict requires the right climate and the right skills.
Create the right climate. First, provide education. People will need to become aware of the two types of conflict. They must be trained to develop an appreciation of the value of task conflict, while recognizing how to avoid relationship conflict that may result from arguments about task conflict.
People need to be educated about the two types of conflict and to appreciate that differences of opinions should not be allowed to degrade into relationship conflict. Instead, differences of opinions should be explored as an opportunity to learn something. In addition, the group needs to foster trust, safety and emotional intelligence. These considerations are tightly linked because it is difficult for any component to exist without the other two. Without these preconditions, group members are unlikely to engage in task conflict, fearing that relationship conflict will emerge.
Initiate skills development within defined work groups. These are groups that meet often enough that lessons learned are remembered between meetings. Start with groups that meet at least weekly. Remind the group of the skills that are needed to manage the balance between the two conflicts. Some groups do well to have a facilitator encourage task conflict but alert the group to emerging signs of relationship conflict.
There are several key behaviors that need to be taught and mastered so that a trusting environment is created where conflict can be constructive. First, the participants should avoid the tendency to evaluate while listening and instead focus on listening for understanding and appreciation. Then, individuals should delay responding to comments until they have had a chance to think through their comments. Reflection may raise some questions that need to be clarified. Most importantly, reflection can help remove emotion from comments and focus on identifying differences of opinion.
Another challenge for the group is to make sure disagreements don't derail the progress of the discussion. Someone in the meeting should assume the responsibility of identifying when the discussion is becoming too contentious and redirecting the conversation to the matters at hand.
Although busy people prefer developing their skills by doing meaningful work, this can be dangerous when dealing with conflict. A lack of skill in engaging in conflict can result in hurt feelings (relationship conflict) that might be difficult to overcome after it has gotten out of hand.
Ultimately, the benefit of a senior executive team developing conflict management skills will be an organization that produces better plans and achieves better commitment to the plan. Making your leadership team conflict competent will produce better results from each initiative you undertake. Fear of conflict can commit an organization to a path of mediocrity. Published research proves it.
Cary Gutbezahl, M.D., is the president and chief operating officer of Compass Clinical Consulting in Cincinnati.
This article first appeared in the on March 8, 2010 in HHN Magazine online site.