LinkedIn Article - Oct 8, 2014

Ok folks, this is my first attempt at my own post on LinkedIn. So forgive me if I do not get the approach just right 🙂

I have worked in higher education for a while now, specifically in colleges that have been through transition and change. One constant that I have observed is how a colleges’ desire “to get to there from here” without conflict seems to be an impediment to “getting there” at all. More so, how any sort of conflict is viewed as a crisis and often used as a catalyst to maintain the status quo. Yes, I get the oxymoronic nature of the statement, which is why such cognitive dissonance results in the sad fact that the amount of change expected is routinely disproportional to the amount of conflict tolerated.

As pretext, please know that what I am writing about is embedded with the following assumption; 1. That the conflict I am discussing is not due to unethical, illegal, or malicious intent. 2. That conflict situations are an important and sensitive example of crisis situations, in which managing change processes is a key element. 3. That conflict plays an important role in managing change requiring innovation.

Although all change processes require participatory approaches in order to promote long-term sustainability, I would argue that processes in conflict situations can especially benefit from such participatory processes. Yet, conflict is rarely viewed as opportunity, but instead conflict is considered unpleasant, counter-productive and time-consuming.

Conversely, conflict that occurs in organizations need not be destructive, provided the energy associated it is harnessed and directed toward problem-solving and organizational improvement. However, managing conflict effectively requires that all parties understand the nature of conflict in the workplace. The innovative view of organizational conflict sees conflict as a productive force, one that can stimulate members of the organization to increase their knowledge, skills, and contribution to organizational innovation and productivity.

Unlike the negative “can’t do” attitude, an innovative approach considers that the keys to organization success lie not in structure, clarity and orderliness, but in creativity, responsiveness and adaptability. It should not be too much of a stretch to accept that a successful organization, then, uses conflict so that diverging views can be put on the table and new ways of doing things can be created. The impact of conflict on innovation also suggests that conflict provides people with feedback about how things are going. Even personality conflicts carry information to the manager about what is not working in an organization, affording the opportunity to improve.

If you subscribe to a flexible vision of effective organizations and recognize that each conflict situation provides opportunity to improve, you then shift your view of conflict. Rather than trying to eliminate conflict or suppress its symptoms, your task becomes managing conflict so that it enhances people and organizations, rather than destroying them. So, the task is to manage conflict and avoid what I would call negative conflict, where conflict is allowed to eat away at team cohesiveness and productivity. All that being said, conflict seems to be the least tolerated by all constituents and a practice that is often the undoing of a proposed change.

So I hope you can share in my surprise that ineffective leadership that avoid conflict is sometimes more palatable to constituents than innovative leaders who engender managed conflict as a necessary piece of the puzzle.