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  • Writer's pictureXecutive Metrix

Achieving Breakthrough Creativity Thru Conflict

Updated: May 11, 2023

Conflict is a natural part of life and work. Since we each hold unique perspectives, we will not agree on every issue. The word “conflict” typically conjures up a number of negative images, including awkward confrontations, shouting matches and emotional turmoil. In reality, there are different types of conflict; not all of them are negative or dysfunctional, and indeed, some are highly positive and quite healthy.

Conflictus, the Latin root, means a “striking together.” Consider the human body. We can easily understand that without the conflict we know as exercise, our bones and muscles would quickly atrophy. But by causing conflict, the striking together of bone, muscle and a weight or other force, our bones are fortified, our muscles strengthened, and our heart enhanced. Conversely, we are all too familiar with what happens when there is no exercise!

In that same light, certain amounts of the right kind of conflict in a workplace are highly desirable since they can fortify, strengthen and enhance the organization. Handled properly, such conflict will not only generate new concepts and new opportunities to propel an organization to greater success, but it can also rocket individuals to the higher levels of performance and creativity needed to sustain a growing company.

The One-Minute Test for Leadership

This will shock most people, but there is a very simple test that will quickly diagnose a weak, ineffective leader. Any leader, at any level, who shows an aversion to iconoclasts, instantly categorizes himself as being ineffective. Conversely, to a highly productive and effective leader, an iconoclast, someone who constructively criticizes or opposes beliefs and practices that are widely accepted, is a rare jewel to be cherished.

There are two key differences that separate a poor leader from a great leader. One such difference lies in the leader’s ability to absorb intellectual challenges without suffering a diminished ego. Self-esteem and real confidence make this possible. The other key difference is that a great leader recognizes the value that conflict can bring to the executive table, the board room, or an employee conference. She does not eschew it but relishes it.

Breakthrough Creativity

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, if there is one skill that identifies a truly effective leader, it is the ability and the willingness to create conflict. Not conflict that destroys and disperses, but conflict that strengthens and unifies. We can describe such conflict as being galvanizing. It stimulates people to act, to think, to do. And when the conflict is resolved through healthy debate, we are left with something that is stronger than when we started. It is much like the process that makes galvanized metal stronger, better, and more valuable, than its plain cousin.

Enlightened leaders recognize a very simple truth: if everyone agreed with each other all the time, there would be no innovation; just stagnation. So, they encourage and respect differences of opinion, and they set an expectation that conflict will naturally arise during the ordinary course of business.

Soliciting different viewpoints is a highly critical step in diagnosing complex problems and generating optimal solutions. The effective leader understands that this kind of conflict is a necessary part of the growth and improvement process and, rather than trying to avoid it, will take steps to manage and ensure it remains productive. A smart leader wants people to share their diverse perspectives and he will recognize or reward those who are willing to take a stand for their point of view, particularly when their ideas are original.

While there are certainly dysfunctional forms of conflict, such as personality clashes and political battles, galvanizing conflict is all about healthy intellectual debate in the course of generating ideas and solving complex problems. This kind of conflict is a catalyst for new thinking and a means by which an organization can avoid the single-mindedness and groupthink that squelches creativity. Managed properly, the conflict of ideas and intellectual debate push people to better solutions and ultimately, to greater efficiency and productivity.

The effective leader ensures that the focus stays on debating/critiquing the merit of the ideas and does not devolve into criticizing people. Personal attacks or bullying are unacceptable and the leader makes it clear that these will not be tolerated; colleagues are to be treated as teammates and not adversaries. Further, the leader makes it clear that once the intellectual debate is over everyone on the team will support and get on board with whatever decision is made.

A Leader's Role in the Conflict Management Process

  1. Involvement: The leader’s level of involvement must be based on the nature of the team members and the significance/scope of the discussion/project.

  2. Expectation: Differences of opinion are to be encouraged and an expectation set for healthy, respectful debate and an exchange of ideas.

  3. Reciprocity: Expect everyone to participate: debate/cast a vote/offer an opinion, and ultimately support the final decision as if it was their own.

  4. Empathy: Set ground rules that personal attacks are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Watch for signs that conflict is becoming unhealthy, and take appropriate corrective action. Colleagues are to be treated as teammates not as adversaries.

  5. Communication: Listen actively with focused attention. Clarify, Confirm, and Correct the conclusions that are made to ensure crystal clear clarity.

  6. Follow Through: Get a commitment to follow through on the agreed outcomes. Set expectations and accountabilities and a follow-through process.

  7. Recognition: Recognize and reward those who have the real courage to step away from the herd.

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