On the outside, I’m betting none of my readers would believe that conflict is, in general, productive. And I guess a lot of it isn’t. Let’s look at what conflict works and what conflict doesn’t.
In his groundbreaking book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni lists the “fear of conflict” as the second dysfunction (supported by the first, which is lack of trust).
Why don’t we like conflict? I suspect we’ve been taught not to like it. Since childhood it has frequently revolved around hurt feelings, damaged egos, lawsuits, and sometimes even bodily harm. Here’s the point: Those are all Knower/Judger components. I actually can’t think of a conflict that doesn’t exist unless it’s between two Knower/Judger rule sets or interpretations. I end up in conflict with you because my interpretation of what’s right is substantially different from yours, and it somehow affects my life (goal, aspiration, responsibility, duty).
Let’s say we’re on one of Lencioni’s teams. Maybe it’s a new team and we haven’t worked together much to date. So far my teammates have exhibited the ability to “have my back.” One of my teammates even covered my butt when I made an error on a bid last week. So, at present it appears that a reasonable level of trust is in play between us.
Then comes a potential conflict. A national account I’d worked on with a past employer agrees to meet with us to discuss a three-year contract, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems they called our company and my teammate took the call. Since we’re all on a contingency-based compensation plan, there will be considerable benefit to the party associated with closing this contract.
The teammate feels he’s right because he took the call and made the immediate relationship with the prospect. I think I’m right because I already have a strong established relationship with the prospect.
(Incidentally, it’s been my experience that “trust” sometimes doesn’t run deep in sales teams—especially those where the teammates basically only eat what they kill. Scavengers aren’t appreciated. And teammates are set up to realize Lencioni’s first dysfunction.)
We could run to the boss and plead our respective cases, getting louder and more animated in turn. Yes, the other salesperson initiated the relationship with the prospect. Yes, I have a good working history (and trust) with the prospect. The boss could tell us to “work it out,” and then we both have choices to make.
Remember I’ve mentioned that K/J versus K/J rants rarely end well? It’s my contention that, taken to their extreme, someone dies. On a metro bus in St. Louis just this last weekend, a couple of passengers bumped… and within 40 seconds one was chased off the bus, followed, and shot until he was dead. Seriously.
But we’ve been together long enough, and my buddy covered me on that bid error, so we’re a step closer to being able to engage in this current conflict and survive… perhaps even thrive.
The conflict is engaged: scenario #1:
The adversary goes to our manager and explains the “rules” of the sales department (right there I know he’s in his K/J). And I go to the boss and suggest that my adversary doesn’t know this prospect as well as I do and the whole account is at risk. He says. I say. He says. I say. Meanwhile the prospect chooses an entirely different solution for his issue.
The conflict is engaged: scenario #2:
First, before waving the “rule book” at me, the adversary concedes that working with a trusted advisor may be valuable to the contract, and my temperature immediately drops a little—he gets my point. Second, I submit that he came across this piece of business legitimately and is doing a good job of converting it to a contract. We agree to look at the account, its potential, and how much each of us can contribute to a successful and profitable outcome for our employer.
Which scenario works in everybody’s best interest?
The lesson? Conflict is almost always about my interpretation of what “should be” (i.e., my rules) disagreeing with my adversary’s interpretation of what should be. Taking a step back and conceding that the other has a point is the start of constructive conflict. To Lencioni’s point, this is significantly easier when we possess an inherent level of trust for each other. Without it we’re most likely headed for scenario #1 and to losing the prospect entirely.