In the world of business leadership, the word conflict tends to be seen in a negative light.
Mostly we read books, attend workshops and receive coaching on how to avoid conflict or resolve it when it comes up.
All of our learning is programmed around how we can ensure conflict does not happen, but is that always the best way to lead?
If managed in the right way, can conflict become a good thing? Something we should invite in our teams rather than drive away?
Recently, we had a fascinating conversation with a leadership coach who believes that inviting conflict in your teams can enable us to be more successful in business.
Jana Bruechmann has been working as a leadership coach for the last five years in Berlin and believes that encouraging conflict is a great way to make your teams more productive and bring them closer together to improve your business.
This blog will cover some of the key lessons from that thrilling conversation and leave you with a whole new way to think about conflict in the workplace.
You can listen to the full conversation by tuning in to season two, episode two of our weekly podcast The Leadership Detectives.
To get us started, we asked Jana how she defines conflict:
Inviting conflict isn’t a bad thing
Jana: “Typically, there is a lot of judgement behind the term ‘conflict’. There’s this idea that it’s meant to be a negative thing, which is why I prefer to use a more neutral term, like ‘tension’.
I think a lot of the time, people try to avoid tension or conflict. An old style of leadership might not even allow it to happen at all. They would say, ‘This is the goal, shut up and get on with it.’ But actually, it might be relevant that the person speaks up if they don’t think it’s the right thing to do. They can point out things that might have been missed and present some other options to achieve this goal.
In this way, tension and conflict can be a really good thing. However, you need to be careful when inviting conflict into your teams. There need to be some principles or rules around how you handle the conflict.
Healthy, controlled conflicts are good because they can allow organisations to evolve, which is vital for businesses’ success. Any company that can’t evolve and prepare for conflict, tension and change may not be successful in the future.”
This idea of inviting conflict is fascinating from a leadership perspective and, in theory, we can see how it can work. However, we were curious to see if Jana had any practical experience of this working for her:
Opening the door to new perspectives
Jana: “Inviting conflict in your life in a controlled way not only has major benefits for businesses, but also for your personal life. I practise it all the time in my private life, and it’s so fruitful!
Controlling conflict using things like nonviolent communication means we are getting much closer to each other, and we have a deeper understanding of the other person’s perspective. This new understanding can open the door for other options that you may not have seen before.”
So, if controlled in the right way, inviting conflict in your teams sounds like it’s worth trying! However, we needed to understand better some of the strategies leaders can use to invite and manage conflict:
Creating a “parking spot”
Jana: “One of the best strategies for leaders is to have what I call a ‘parking spot’ for tensions. This is a meeting where people can bring conflicts up and handle them in a safe, controlled environment.
In these meetings, you work on the system, and you work on the organisation itself so that people can bring up whatever issues are on their mind.
Then, the person who brings up the tension has to provide a proposal on how to deal with it. Now we can invite everyone in the meeting to share their views on that proposal to shape a final solution that has everyone’s points of view taken into account.
We can then use that final proposal to make some really beneficial changes to the organisation.”
So, before you start inviting conflict in your teams, you need to do quite a lot of groundwork because if you invite conflict in without a well-thought-out model or system, you’re going to create chaos!
One of the models that comes to mind would be the Situational Leadership Model®. However, the question we wanted to ask was: do the team, or members of the team, need to be in a certain place on that Situational Leadership Model® or have a certain level of maturity for this to work?
It’s all about your leadership mindset
Jana: “Yes, as a leader, you will need to have some level of understanding to make conflicts work for you, but a lot of it also depends on the perception you have of your team.
If you look at your employees as lazy, immature or not capable enough to manage conflict, then it can be difficult to invite these new ideas in.
Most of the time, the topics on conflict will be in the areas that your team are experts in, so chances are they will have the knowledge and the right level of maturity to take on these new challenges.
Your job as a leader should be to create a safe enough space for them to try new systems out. Then, afterwards, you can reflect on if it worked or what needs to be improved.”
We work with a few companies who would agree that encouraging tension and conflict between departments creates higher performance levels. Their reasoning for this is because each team will want to outdo the other. This is particularly common in sales teams.
We wanted to find out if there are some areas of leadership where this kind of conflict actually works and adds value:
Jana: “I love the work of Simon Sinek, who talks a lot about infinite leadership. This means there’s enough for everyone. You don’t need to fight each other or bring someone else down for you to step up.
It’s more about gamification and trying to be better, but against yourself rather than focusing on beating everyone else.
As I mentioned before, the point of inviting conflict into your teams is not to point the finger at individual people but to improve the business as a whole.”
Jana’s idea of positive conflict brings a new way of thinking about leadership that breaks the mould of some of the things we have talked about in the past.
Positive conflict doesn’t make things right or wrong, it just makes things different, and that makes it worth trying out. To round off our conversation, we asked Jana if there were any resources out there for leaders who wanted to try out inviting conflict into their teams:
Some useful books to check out
Jana: “I would start by reading the following books:
The Loop Approach, Ben Hughes and Sebastian Klein: A fantastic read on how people can run a transformation from within their organisation. Its ideas are firmly based on holacracy and creating tension-based activities.
(We didn’t know what holacracy meant either but keep your eye out for future blogs where we will discuss it in detail!)
The Magic of Conflict, Thomas Crum: An intriguing study on the benefits of conflict in life.
Another really good base to understand these ideas is looking at the work on Marshall Rosenberg and nonviolent communication.
And finally, allow yourself to be vulnerable as a leader – that is vital! Brene Brown has talked about this for years, so I’d highly recommend her work too.”
Our conversation with Jana was a real eye-opener for us and certainly got us thinking about leadership in a new light!
To learn more about Jana and the work she does, feel free to drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, you can book a free coaching session by heading over to our website.
More to come next week.