A Conflict-Free Organization is Near Death. Really?

I saw an interesting post on Inc.com last week, with a title that was hard to resist: A conflct-free organization isn’t great. It’s near death. Hmm … there’s one to think about. It was posted by “serial CEO” Margaret Heffernan.

Margaret had spent a day at a Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. Here’s the key point:

The big problem with conflict isn’t the conflict itself but the fear and anger it invokes when left unresolved. Most people are afraid to wade into an argument because they don’t feel confident they will be able to manage it, and they’re afraid they’ll become embroiled in something they can’t control and are unlikely to win.

The solution to that, of course, isn’t to keep avoiding the problems. It’s to train people how to deal with conflict effectively, calmly, and fairly. Yet only about a third of managers have any training in coping with conflict of any kind.

The headline bothers me a lot. Granted: Sacrificing ideas, progress, change, and solutions to just to avoid conflict isn’t good. But conflict isn’t good either.

And I question the research. Margaret writes:

In a Roffey Park survey, 57% of managers reported that “inaction” was their organization’s main method of conflict resolution, and cited “avoidance” and “pretending it isn’t there” as a regular course of action. Sound familiar?

Yes, it does sound familiar. Sounds to me like middle managers forced to interrupt their busy day to take a survey enjoying a passive-aggressive revenge with their answers.

Come on, it was a survey. Do you think the respondents told the truth?

Here’s my favorite way to avoid conflict: Talk about the ideas, the problems, the issues, the opportunities, and don’t personalize. It’s an idea or an option, not Ralph’s suggestion or Mary’s. Watch your tone. Keep your mind open. Listen. They are ideas, options, problems, but not people.

Maybe it’s a bit like physics, with conflict like friction, and friction what happens when things move forward. A friction-free vehicle would be really cool until you tried to steer it.


  • Stephen Lahey says:

    In a world full of business “experts” posting hyperbole and outright nonsense far and wide – you are a voice of reason. That’s why i subscribe to this blog. Thanks for doing what you do, Tim.

  • Dobes Vandermeer says:

    I think what is confusing about the original post is that it says “no conflict” when it means “no visible conflict”. That said, a team without constructive conflict like debates and different views on how things can be done probably is in trouble. Change requires conflict between the old and new, and growth requires change. Dealing with conflict between people is a huge challenge for companies of all sizes, including one.

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