Cultivating Conflict

I think we often do internal organizational conflict wrong. Plenty of nonprofit folks and organizations actively avoid conflict. Nonprofits collaborate, we don’t fight. It just feels wrong, so we do what we can to avoid it.

Or we fight in the wrong ways about the wrong things.

What we often don’t do is deliberately cultivate and encourage conflict, yet conflict is actually healthy and important, I think. That’s where teams really push each other, challenging each other’s assumptions, pushing back against each other’s ideas, probing for the flaws and the opportunities. Conflict, when done right, creates a “productive range of distress,” to use Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s term from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. The challenge isn’t to sterilize or repress conflict out of our office environments but to make sure we contain it and shape it so that it really does serve those sorts of productive purposes.

I don’t claim any expertise here, but I have noticed a few things that seem to help contain and shape it in useful ways:

  • The discussion is respectful even if heated … personal critiques and attacks usually aren’t helpful.
  • Establishing some ground rules about decorum. I don’t know that it matters much what those ground rules are, so long as the group feels some ownership over them and so long as they are consistently enforced.
  • Someone playing the role of facilitator, which might be the ED, or it might rotate, or with some other arrangement, but someone who’s job it is to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, to pull back the tension if it climbs too high or push the conversation forward if it starts to stall.

How does your organization manage conflict? Does it ever cultivate conflict, and if so, how? How well does it work?

(Photo by Flickr user iansand).

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