I’m toying around with writing another book; a thought that creates simultaneous excitement and terror. Given that it’s been three years since You First came out, I thought I better ramp up slowly. I’m going to write a few posts that capture some of the ideas I might include in the book. Then I need your help to tell me whether they are interesting; relevant; compelling, persuasive, etc. So if you think the world could use another book, I would really appreciate your thoughts in the comments.

So what are you writing a book about, you ask? Oh, right, good question. The one idea that gets me fired up enough to contemplate writing 65,000 words is conflict. While there’s certainly too much nasty, debilitating conflict in the workplace, there is far too little of the healthy, productive conflict that organizations need to succeed. I believe the two are related. Somehow the fear of the ugly variety has generalized to an aversion to all conflict.

(And now I’m imagining a scale that measures good and bad conflict in your organization, much like you doctor would measure your LDL and HDL cholesterol. Hmmm…..)

The Cost of Avoiding Conflict

Are you conflict averse? Is your organization? If so, that conflict aversion is hurting your business, tearing apart your teams, and stressing you out in the process. The unwillingness and/or inability to raise and work through difficult conversations is leaving important issues hanging over you. That has many costly affects:

Decisions are too slow. Has your team started throwing around the word “agile” as the new silver bullet? It would be nice to think that your company or department or team is agile. It probably isn’t. That’s because the same difficult issues surface over and over again without being resolved. You envy the small, feisty disruptors of your industry and think their agility is due to size. But it’s equally due to their willingness to have conflict. To be fair, conflict is easier when you have nothing to lose. It’s harder, but even more vital, when you have everything to lose. If you can’t or won’t have conflict, you aren’t moving fast enough for today’s world.

Departments come unstuck. You might attribute the silos in your organization to poor communication. I bet that communication broke down because every time you communicated, there was an uncomfortable or contentious conversation. Who wants to communicate with someone that doesn’t agree with you? If you can’t control the process or the outcome, it’s just easier to retreat to your respective camps rather than doing the hard work of coming to a mutually agreeable approach. The result is that your solutions are fractured, implementation is slow, and the customer suffers because you can’t cope with inter-departmental conflict.

Trust erodes. When you hold onto negative thoughts and feelings about another person, team, or department without working to a resolution, you start to erode trust. Even the smallest indiscretion on the part of a colleague can sow the seeds of doubt. (In many cases, there was no indiscretion at all, only your perception of one.) If you had strong conflict skills, you would share the impact of the behavior and provide an opportunity to repair the damage before it’s too late. When you withhold your reaction out of a fear of the interaction turning to conflict, you start things on a downward course.

You stew. Conflict aversion has become so strong that you might choose to avoid conflict even knowing the high cost of carrying the hostility and negativity around unresolved. In an attempt to avoid a few minutes of discomfort in confronting the person with whom you have an issue, you sign yourself up for prolonged uneasiness, or worse. While your body was designed for short bursts of intense stress (like having a disagreement with a coworker) it suffers greatly from prolonged stress (like not being able to sleep on weeknights). You are weakening yourself by avoiding conflict.

The cost of personal, vicious, unproductive conflict is high. But avoiding all conflict for fear of unproductive conflict is a terrible idea. Our organizations need to learn to have productive conflict, for all our sakes.

Want more? Would a book on how to have healthy and productive conflict be valuable to you and your teammates? Please let me know in the comments.

Further Reading

Is Your Team Prepared for Conflict

Tools to Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

Adam Grant vs Brene Brown: Two Truths are Better than One

29 Responses to The Case for More Conflict

  1. Vince Molinaro

    Congrats Liane! Your ideas are spot on. The question I keep asking is why? Why do organizations, leaders and employees struggle so much with conflict? After all the years of conflict management training, we don’t seem to be much better at it. Good luck!

    • 3coze

      Thanks so much Vince. I agree with you that the cause of our conflict aversion is a mystery. I’ll try to get more insight into this as I write the book. It would be a great question to ask the leaders you work with…

  2. Bruce Morgan

    Hi Liane – I believe you have put your finger on a key factor that prevents organizations from achieving their potential and that is avoiding positive conflict. Avoidance of interpersonal conflict can lead to not engaging in debate on issues that are central to the success of an organization.

    In addition to the interpersonal costs you have identified, what I have observed over my career is the organizational impact conflict-avoidance has on reaching the best possible path forward. Seldom is the first version of a solution the best solution and it is only through a healthy exchange of diverse perspectives that we can land on the approach with the best possible chance of success (including buy-in.

    High-performing organizations are comfortable with individuals throughout the organization being able to challenge an initial proposal with a view to making it better. When the challenge-function is absent, you lose the benefit of those perspectives and limit the possibility of positive change. Interpersonal conflict can certainly be a barrier to that process and I think you will need to find a way of addressing the costs of such behavior as well as the benefit (necessity) of comfort with a culture that promotes the challenge function.

    One of the challenges you will face is vocabulary. Positive conflict would be seen by many as an oxymoron given the generally negative associations with the word conflict.

    Carry on – your are on to something!

    • 3coze

      Hi Bruce, thanks for weighing in. I have to give serious thought to the language I use in the book. My bull-in-a-china-shop personality tends to believe that if people can’t even say the word conflict, that they’re going to have trouble embracing it. I have to consider language that would make disagreement and dissension more palatable. This is going to be a really important thing for me to tackle in the writing. Thanks for highlighting it!

  3. Your insights on the value of productive conflict would be welcome to many, my clients included. The test of any relationship is in how we handle differences more so than how we respond to sameness. There is so much that can be said about productive conflict that it is worth more than a blog. Go for it.

    • 3coze

      Hi Anne, thanks so much for the encouragement. I look forward to your comments on the conflict blogs as I start to assemble the ideas for the book. Your insights from your client work would be very valuable. Cheers, Liane

  4. Joseph

    Great Post, Liane! Yes, I think the world could use a book on conflict as it pertains to organizations, teams, families, and relationships between people. I think the average person spends too much time avoiding conflict because, as you mentioned, there is some “discomfort” in tackling the issue head on. But when I don’t tackle the issue head on, the result is a lack of trust and an erosion of the relationship. As someone who struggles with conflict, it would be helpful to have in your book some talk of what naturally “harmony-oriented” individuals stand to benefit from having those difficult conversations both in work and at home. Thanks again!

    • 3coze

      Hi Joseph, it’s people just like you that I want to write the book for. People who take their obligation to their organizations, teams, and families very seriously but just don’t know how to have conflict in a way that will strengthen those relationships rather than destroying them. I’m on it!

  5. Marcus Culp

    I think a book on the topic would be great. I find that schools have prepared us well for the technical aspects of our lives, but how to manage conflict has been sorely lacking whether taught formally in schools or training or through life circumstances. I believe we are more often taught negative, unproductive ways to engage in conflict and we all suffer the consequences. Looking forward to a book on the topic. Thanks

    • 3coze

      Hi Marcus, it’s so true. There are certainly exceptional educators who tackle these interpersonal skills, but they are rare. For the most part, we think that we can do our jobs in a vacuum and don’t need to learn the skills of communication, collaboration, and conflict. Thanks for commenting and I look forward to your input on the conflict posts as I get rolling.

  6. Jackie Keefe

    This is so appropriate for the UK’s public sector right now! After years of responding to perceived needs by extending timelines and throwing more money at it (and marginalising those who don’t agree), this is no longer an option. Creativity is key to come up with new ways of achieving results, proactive creativity. So gaining buy-in is key but in a hierarchical organisation (as most in the public sector still are) this is almost impossible – even when you’re top dog. So I believe the time is right for such a book – get writing Lianne!

    • 3coze

      Hi Jackie, thanks so much for sharing your perspective from the UK public sector. I am always humbled by the challenge of working in the public sector with so many different interests in tension with each other. Sadly, we’ve had little of the leadership that unites us behind common causes. I’ll try to address that issue in the book. Liane

  7. Monique

    Hi Liane, I definitely think a book on positive conflict is necessary. As a society (in Canada), we have decided that conflict is a negative thing and since we want to be positive, it means we don’t say anything when boundaries are violated or we simply disagree with someone else. The book needs to explore the why of conflict and conflict aversion but it really needs to be a how-to on how to “do” positive conflict. How fast can you get that book published? 🙂

    • 3coze

      Hi Monique, I’ll go as fast as I can!!! You make a great point about the importance of the “how-to” book that gives people the actual words to engage in conflict productively. I’ll provide a heavy dose of practical and pragmatic in the book. Until then, watch for the posts that lay out each chapter and keep the comments coming. I’ll look to you to tell me if the suggestions are realistic and if you think people would actually use them!

  8. Hi, Liane. I agree with the others who’ve said that this would make for a very useful book. I’d love to know what you have to say about two things I see: (1) We don’t know how to distinguish good conflict from bad conflict, and (2) We don’t know what the real issues are because we’re down in the trenches, thus unable to see the big picture.

    • 3coze

      Hi Larry, great points. I’m adding both to my list of topics to cover. It’s funny because I just finished a post for next week on the huge problem of managers in the trenches. We’re on the save wavelength. Keep the great advice coming! L

  9. Pingback: Tension is a good thing | 3coze

  10. Pingback: Twas the night before | 3coze

  11. Pingback: 4 Simple Tips for Those Who Despise Conflict but Know it’s Important | 3coze

  12. Pingback: A radical solution to the silo problem | 3coze

  13. Pingback: Book Review: Conflict Management Coaching The CINERGY Model | 3coze

  14. Pingback: Book Review: Conversational Capacity | 3coze

  15. Pingback: 8 Ways You Do Harm When You Think You Are Helping | 3coze

  16. Pingback: Getting Fired (Up) | 3coze

  17. Pingback: Is your team prepared for conflict? | 3coze

  18. Pingback: 4 secrets of avoiding the conflict spiral | 3coze

  19. Pingback: Why you owe it to your teammates to disagree with them | 3coze

  20. Pingback: Adam Grant versus Brené Brown: Two Truths are Better than One | 3coze

  21. Pingback: Why your organization has a culture of fear | 3coze

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *