Managing Through the Paradox of Conflict

Bob Wilson, Founder and Chairman of ADVISA, writes a quarterly Chairman’s Letter. Bob’s letters skillfully incorporate his years of consulting experience into real-life stories. He writes from the heart. We hope you’ll enjoy.


Dear Fellow Leaders,

My last newsletter was entitled, “Relationships Matter”.  And they do.  Interestingly, when you dig under the surface of organizations where relationships are the most successful, there’s a surprising paradox.  Within these strong organizations, the expression of conflict (which can be viewed as inter-personally destructive by some) is both encouraged and proactively managed.  Conflict is a fundamental and necessary part of successful relationships everywhere; with couples, friends, and even within organizations.  When conflict is brought into the open, addressed and resolved, relationships (and organizational cultures) are more likely to thrive. Where conflict is suppressed, hidden, or not tolerated; relationships (and organizational cultures) suffer.

Starting points for conflict are everywhere.  Different perspectives are natural in business.  Marketing has a different, frequently conflicting perspective than sales.  Engineering has a different, frequently conflicting perspective from manufacturing.  Operational management has a different, frequently conflicting perspective from HR.  Assertive people have different, conflicting perspectives than passive people.  Gregarious people…  It goes on and on.  The people within organizations have lots of reasons to disagree – on tactics, strategy and approach – to come into conflict.

And in organizations, unlike with friends, family and loved ones; one is put in situations where one must address conflict with people with whom they wouldn’t ordinarily have relationships.  Thus, while no one really likes to deal with conflict, within organizations it’s worse because it involves disagreements among people one hasn’t selected to be with.  It can get messy.  It can involve emotions.  It requires allowing opposing ideas to clash.  And, without the trust of friends, family or loved ones to fall back on, conflict can get ugly.


It’s easy to understand why many organizations and the people within them just wish conflict away.


Unfortunately, the wishing doesn’t work.  As Peter Drucker wisely said long ago, “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.”  With conflict, Drucker’s words are particularly on target.

Organizations and leaders frequently discourage conflict because of its inherent messiness.  It’s swept under the rug – and that’s tolerated.  One or both parties just stops participating and shuts down – and that’s tolerated.  Or, just as bad, leaders suggest the participants simply stop arguing.  The problem in these cases is that the solution doesn’t make the conflict go away.  It submerges.  It hides – while eroding trust and building walls between the participants.  The relationships get worse.  Frequently, by discouraging conflict, we damage relationships.


What to do?


Wherever and whenever you see conflict that isn’t being addressed, know it is impacting relationships and the trust, and/or harmony between them.  Rather than ignoring conflict, try to come up with plans to bring the issues involved to light, to understand them and do your best to put the disagreements on the road to resolution.  The people involved will function better together when and if they feel heard and that their perspective has been considered – even if whatever was the original source of the conflict doesn’t yield a resolution corresponding to their point of view.


Let me give you an example of the types of situations that you should be sensitive to and work to address:

Two leaders who naturally compete for decisions or resources – it could be the heads of sales and marketing; or quality and manufacturing; or, HR and training; – come to loggerheads.  One believes one thing, the other disagrees.  Rather than sorting out a solution that works for all parties, they don’t – each heading in their own direction, not unbundling whatever caused the dissonance – instead, proceeding under their own assumptions further alienating the other party from themselves.  The conflict has been avoided.  But, two silos are being built with the resultant misuse of resources, efforts and concomitant loss of trust.

As a leader, I’d suggest you make it your business to encourage participants to address whatever problem is causing disagreement and work to resolve it.  If they can’t do that on their own, set up processes for intercession – that can be led by you, employee relations or an inside or outside coach.  The source of intercession doesn’t matter.  Just intercede.  Conflict shouldn’t be ignored.  Dissonance shouldn’t be pocket vetoed.  Make proactive intercession part of your culture in those places where lack of resolution yields inaction, mistrust and building of silos.  Set up mechanisms to address conflicts from whatever sources they’re likely to arise.

When conflict is resolved peaceably and with good intent, relationships are likely to prosper because trust is being built through the process of generating positive forward moving outcomes.  And trust, more than liking or loving, is what is necessary for relationships within organizations.  When people trust that others are behaving with good intent and aiming to work together, that belief can trump personal animosity.  Trust is at the heart of positive organizational relationships and resolving conflict together helps to build it.

Conflict in organizations is natural.  And healthy.  And, like other things that matter in your organization, you should set up processes to manage it.  Leaving unresolved conflict fester isn’t an option.  By managing it, you will build a culture that is comfortable bringing conflict up to the surface and resolving it.  An added benefit is that resolving conflict minimizes the wall building that yields silos. People learn that despite disagreements, and potentially not even liking each other, they can get along and move forward in a mutually satisfactory fashion.  They get used to and learn to proactively address problems together.  They build trust.


Without friction, nothing changes.  Without intervention at the nexus of friction, fires can break out.  Building mechanisms to encourage and manage conflict serves positive change, prevents fires and builds organizational strength through trust.


The strongest organizations encourage the expression of conflict and proactively manage it.  Why don’t you?  If you feel you need help getting started, give us a call.


Thank you for reading,

Bob Wilson, Chairman

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