During decades conflict has been seen as a corporate illness slowing down companies growth. Corporate leaders were avoiding conflicts at any cost and have done their best to structure their organization to minimize the risk of seeing conflicts between their employees. Nevertheless, modern theories are highlighting conflict management as a necessary and important management tool enhancing creativity within organizations.
The famous entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan assumes that « For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate ». By saying so, she encourages corporate leaders to not fight against conflict but to accept it in order to use it for their company own good. In his book « Comprendre et gérer les conflits dans les entreprises et les organisations », Pierre Rousseau differentiates two main ways to manage conflicts:
The proactive management of conflict.
The retroactive management of conflict.
Managers need to be able to juggle between both kinds of management to ensure that the conflicts are constructive and useful for their organization. In Rousseau’s theories, the objective of proactive conflict management is double:
Eliminate unnecessary conflicts within the organization.
Free employee's opinions to encourage debates and conflict of ideas.
A good proactive management of conflict would naturally reduce the number of useless conflicts to leave a bigger room for conflicts of ideas leading to innovation. In a global corporate world where innovation is vital we can wonder why conflict management has become a key managerial competency ? How can managers use conflict management as a tool to encourage and control innovation within their organization ? What rules of conflict management can be applied to control it ?
Modern corporate structures are enhancing human interactions and conflict.
Any private organization competing on a given market has the objective of being profitable. To reach this objective they have modified their structure to become more flexible, and more efficient. New methodologies/theories of work organization, like the agile methodology or holacracy, are focusing on individuals within smaller group of work to ensure that their competencies will be used at their best for the own good of the group. Brian J. Robertson in his book The Revolution Holacracy highlights the fact that « every time the size of a city is doubling, the innovation or the productivity per habitant improve by 15%. Surprisingly, when the size of a company is increasing, the productivity or the innovation per employee is decreasing ».
To combine growth with productivity and innovation in a corporate context, managers have set up modern structures or method to ensure that employees will use their skills within a smaller team where they will feel considered by others and useful for the group. In short words, modern organization would focus on reducing the size of their structure to encourage interactions between people. Interactions creates ideas, and frequently conflict of ideas. To use the full potential of these modern organizations, some managers have accepted to not avoid conflict but to turn it into something positive. It is also key for them to make their employees as free as possible as the effectiveness of their structure is based on individuals using their skills of competencies at their best.
If conflict management is vital for organization where employees can take initiatives, like start-ups, we can wonder if conflict management is also critical for bigger organization, where the boundaries are set by processes for almost any decision made?
Management of conflicts is a strong platform to implement change within the organization.
It seems always easier to apply new ways of organization in smaller companies: For instance, a start-up of 10 employees will easily accept to apply holacracy as the natural size of the company already enhances freedom.
Big organizations' creativity to implement modern ways of working is more limited and is always helped by change management strategies that will push employees to accept the change highlighting the positive impact of it. Hence, change management has become a key topic for global organization which are aiming on adapting on a short term basis to stay competitive. As a consequence, employees have developed a feeling of distrust towards employers, and change management can be seen as a threats or a source of uncertainty.
The implementation of change management strategies must be prepared, and a good management of conflict can be a powerful tool to do so. How can conflict help preparing change management strategies implementation?
Transparency, and access to the information.
The feeling of suspicion developed by the employees is often an aftermath of the lack of information on the situation faced by their company. Giving a clear view on the financial results, on the strategy, and on the challenges faced by the company to the employees is vital to prepare change. Without transparency, change will be seen as an authoritarian decision. Change management cannot be successful without transparency.
Debates and conflict of ideas to develop ownership and sense of belonging.
Giving access to the information is not sufficient to prepare change management implementation. Transparency is a platform on which debates and conflict of ideas is built. Allowing employees to share their analyse of the information communicated and to let them discuss it with their colleagues will develop a feeling of belonging and will show them that they are part of the process and that their voices and opinions are heard. These debates won't necessarily make the whole company happy about the change strategies, but they will include all the employees in the process of decision and will clarify the methodologies and the reasons why change has been implemented. In short words, if change management process include good conflict management methods, the implementation of changes will be facilitated.
Once again, the size of the company doesn't always permit to gather all the employees in one single meeting room where everyone can share ideas with to his/her colleagues. In international companies, the number of employees, the different languages spoken, and the cultural differences are obvious barriers. It is important to notice that transparency, and debates organization can be applied at any level of the company (in a team, department, ...) depending on the number of employees and on the level of impact of the change process for the individuals. The lawyer John Curtis has stated « "Good conflict" may sound like an oxymoron, but in fact, conflict can often bring about positive change ».
Conflict management methods will encourage innovation, interactions while developing a strong feeling of membership within the company which will logically result into a high retention rate of employees. Nevertheless, the use of conflict as a management tool can be dangerous if it is chaotic, and rules must be defined and accepted from the start.
Therefore we can wonder what rules of conflict management can be applied to control it?
Some rules can be applied in a context of conflict of ideas, and the process and rules of conflict management in case of interpersonal conflicts are specific ones.
Three main rules must be respected to control conflict and to us it as a real management tool:
Define a dedicated time
A dedicated time should be regularly planned in order to discuss ideas. Defining a clear time slot will help employees preparing themselves and will also help them dealing with a potential frustration during the week as they know that they will have an opportunity to discuss an idea, or share a doubt. From a team perspective, the dedication of a clear time is also important as it will reduce the chance of seeing uncontrolled conflicts during the rest of the week.
Explain the decision making process
The process of decision must be clear and shared to all the participants from the start of the process. Explaining a clear methodology, and clarifying who will be in charge of making a final decision from the start of the process is vital, more specifically in a context of change management.
Establish a clear code of conducts
To enhance creativity, innovation, or deal with fears and frustrations, a clear code of conduct must be established. All the participants should be able to listen to each other without interruption, and only conflict of ideas should be treated during that time.
The academic world has developed several conflicts management methodologies aiming at dealing with conflict and more specifically interpersonal conflict. One of them is the Harvard Conflict Resolution Method which will help companies managing conflicts once is has appeared. The corporate world has clearly noticed that conflict management was a key topic, and has implemented conflict management process in order to prevent conflict, or to manage it if the prevention didn't work before.
Nevertheless, the new corporate structures and methodologies (like holacracy or the agile methodology) encourages and develop interactions between smaller teams that will allow them to be more reactive, more creative, and more efficient. These new organizations have completely transformed the paradigm of conflict management (« For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate »). The question is not anymore to know how to prevent and avoid conflict within the company, but more how to encourage and control it to make it a vector of innovation and a facilitator of change management.
In 2019, Eurogroup Consulting was highlighting the fact that 85% of employees in the world feel disengaged at work. Paradoxically the same study shows that employees are satisfied with their work (i.e: 70 % of french workers are happy with their work). Therefore, the challenge of reconnecting employees with their company strategy by developing a feeling of engagement, and ownership has become crucial. One of the answers to this challenge given so far has been the transformation of corporate organizations with the appearance of new methodologies. Smart conflict management can bring solutions to this new paradigm by bringing innovation, facilitating change management, and make employees connected with their own company strategy! Be modern, encourage conflicts (of ideas)!
- Nadia Guiny; Les 5 étapes de la gestion du conflit; https://www.devop.pro/etapes-gestion-conflits-manager.html; 2017
- Leigh Richards; How Can conflict be good for an organization?; https://smallbusiness.chron.com/can-conflict-good-organization-741.html; 2019
- John Curtis; The Positive Side of Conflict; https://www.johncurtis.ca/conflict-resolution/the-positive-side-of-conflict/; 2012
- Josh Baron; Why Family Businesses need to find the right level of conflict; https://hbr.org/2018/12/why-family-businesses-need-to-find-the-right-level-of-conflict; 2018
- Amy Gallo; Why we should be more disagreeing more at work; https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-we-should-be-disagreeing-more-at-work; 2018
- Brian J. Robertson; The Revolution Holacracy; 2015
- Eurogroup Consulting; L’entreprise Engageante. Mythes et Réalités; 2019