Four reasons why organisations need to promote conflict over harmony

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I happened to be in New York recently when Hilary Clinton announced her intention to run as a Presidential candidate. Her campaign office is based in Brooklyn. Within a few hours her various opposition candidates had come out in force against her starting the combat or conflict that will consume American media for the remainder of 2015 until the next election in 2016. One local evening news anchor said on the night of the announcement, with a sense of despair, “why don’t politicians just live in harmony, then we all could?”.

It got me thinking about the positives and negatives regarding harmony and conflict.

  1. Harmony is not the same thing as the absence of conflict

    According to, conflict is:
    (a) A fight, battle, or struggle, strife, controversy or a quarrel
    (b) Amongst groups conflict is seen to be a discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles.

    For many of us, the desire to create a “harmonious” environment is strong. It is believed that this will increase people’s engagement and enjoyment of work. In seeking harmony, many well intentioned leaders take action to suppress or ignore conflict.

    This can be a naive and unrealistic expectation. There is no doubt a functional work place is better than a dysfunctional one in terms of productivity. But working with a range of people means there will be natural differences of opinion, agendas and desired outcomes. Indeed diversity of opinions and perspectives often drive insights that lead to innovation or break throughs.

  1. Unintended consequences are often worse than the notion of harmony

    Trying to create and maintain a harmonious environment through the avoidance of conflict actually creates the unintended consequence of dissatisfaction and potential combat – a far more aggressive and destructive result than the conflict itself.

    The “rub” that comes from conflict is an often desired and needed element. These disruptors are the catalysts for creativity, debate and exploration of a broad range of ideas and perspectives, increasing understanding of other views. It can produce creative / innovative outcomes sparking from generative discussions rather than just “holding positions”.

    Where this is not encouraged then the conflict doesn’t disappear it just goes underground to bubble up in combative behaviours such as silo mentalities, fiefdom creation, internal competition, dysfunctionality, power plays, lack of transparency, etc, etc. All of these behaviours lead to suboptimal outcomes for the team.

    In a recent team meeting within the food industry a leader bravely spoke up to her peers that the reason they as a leadership team had failed to execute on their strategies was that they believed they needed to be nice to each other continually but in reality their functions were ‘fighting it out’ across the organisation and inadvertently sabotaging each other.

    This is an unintended consequence of trying to uphold harmony.

  1. Creating shared understanding allows for conflict to happen naturally

    The real irony is when structures and systems exist to work effectively with conflict, it actually is more likely to create the desired harmony.

    When leaders and peers learn how to raise objections, challenge opinion, control their own natural reactions in a mutually understood manner, then a conflict enabling system is created. This allows differences to be aired, for people to feel heard and to actually be heard. This demonstrates respect. Respect for both the person and their perspective. From this position, people are open to reciprocating the same to others. It increases the ability to listen and increases shared understanding.

    The key is to have in place systems and structures that enable constructive differences to thrive. The creation of these agreements and processes are often the content of the meetings we facilitate for clients as part of their leadership team as part of the Decide phase of our PALDER model where they are establishing the framework for effective team and organisational performance.

    Team members agree on their shared understanding of

    • What is our joint purpose? Why does that matter? This information is then used as the reference point and navigation tool.
    • How we speak to, interact with and engage with others individually and collectively?
    • What kind of language sets are used so everyone recognises when a peer is objecting or challenging an idea and therefore not to take that challenge personally.
    • What is the process for decision making amongst the group?
    • What is the process for exploration of issues? What is needed to be provided? By when? In what format?

    When elements such as these are well articulated and actioned, the ability for conflict to be constructive is heightened.

  1. Sometimes, the leader needs to actively cause discomfort to get a raised performance from the organisation

    There is little doubt humans like to work for someone they respect rather than someone of whom they are scared. Bullies can achieve results in a short term period but eventually lose discretionary effort as people tire of aggression.

    On the flip side however, leaders that are overly harmonious, balanced and even just very nice, also lose out on potential discretionary effort from their team members.

    This was highlighted perfectly with a current client recently. He is a new and well liked CEO, who is showing great early promise. His team in a frank feedback session to him, uniformly said they wished he would push them harder rather than just keeping everyone happy. They felt as a collective group they had more to offer. ‘Cause some conflict’, one of them said!

    And he will.


How are you promoting constructive conflict in your team? If you would like support in this area please contact us.

Any comments, please leave in the feedback box below.