Monday, December 05, 2005

More Sustainable Practices to Support Creativity in Business: Conflict, Part 2

In consultant fashion, my writing often begins with a problem brought to me by someone in a bit of a pickle.

The Weekly Pickle

This week, a writer friend (let's call her Jane) told me about her frustration with the way conflict is handled at work. Jane is tremendously bright, has a great deal of experience as a writer and thinker, and works in a department that generates insight papers for a large corporate concern.

Jane's Challenge

When conflict arises -- either in a planning meeting or in an interview -- those controlling the agenda insist on eliminating tension as quickly as possible.

It's a rather counterproductive tendency aimed at restoring a level of emotional comfort and a sense that everyone's on the same team. In conversations designed to uncover new insights, polite discussion becomes the priority over exploring new territory.

If necessary, consensus is achieved by force -- contradictions are denied, and the higher-ranking people at the table change the subject or claim resolution without actually achieving it.

An Alternative Strategy

Someone else my friend and I both know (let's call him Max) does a beautiful job at turning this sort of situation around. When conflict arises, Max calmly refuses the be turned away from the original topic at hand.

Sometimes square in face of hierarchical convention, Max highlights the manner in which viewpoints diverge or conflict after the subject has been dismissed. However, he also offers ways to explore the relationships among opposing perspectives.

When resolution is impossible, Max encourages the room to be curious about contradiction and suggests that this fact is as much a topic worthy of investigation as any particular point of view.

See Max Run

It must be said that part of Max's ability to do this comes from the fact that he is a man. When he speaks, he is heard in a way that my other, female friend is not.

On the other hand, this does not take anything away from Max's accomplishments. He is willing to be curious aloud in the face of longstanding business convention that sees contradiction among peers as a problem.

Max persistently, quietly insists that opposition is not to be feared but instead must be acknowledged where it lies. Otherwise, how can writers reach the real inisights the company seeks?

Max's Methods

Max's methods are various: charisma, brilliance, gentleness, persistence, and gravitas. However, his greatest strength is that he reframes the conflict in terms that take away the emotional acrimony -- or fear of it arising.

Debate can generate as much emotional as cerebral investment, and in a business context, feelings can be uncomfortable. In addition, positions start to feel personal -- conflict can imply winners and losers, and who wants to end up giving ground? Max stands back from the situation and allows others to do the same. It leaves everyone freer to be curious.

Sometimes it doesn't work -- the people you work with have to be willing to see things new, or even the most persuasive voices will not move them. Being open to new ideas works best when it's rewarded from the highest levels of any business.

So Where Does This Lead?

Sometimes talking things through can allow a group to see that they actually agree or find a new, better idea generated collectively. Conversation can an excellent discipline for finding the overlap in seemingly disparate perspectives.

However, it is childish to believe that there is only one right answer, that all contradiction can be resolved, and that everyone can come to agree about issues around which they have vastly different experience. Lines of reasoning often run parallel or at angles to each other, and the feelings that support intellectual positions will not disappear even if they are forcibly dismissed.

And So?

If opposition is inevitable, why not use the abundant energy it generates for discovery? Discomfort is part of the game sometimes -- after all, embarking on new journeys can be very disorganizing. On the other hand, how can you uncover new insights without exploring what you don't already know?

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