It goes without saying that conflict often comes at a terrible price: War is the obvious, extreme case where the human and economic toll is immeasurable. But on a more mundane level, the costs of conflict to a business, production crew or orchestra can include chronic absenteeism, stress-related health issues, withholding of creative and innovative ideas, role confusion, reduced productivity, loss of skilled team members, inferior decisions, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations, among other things. These costs can be equally immeasurable, if only because so much of the damage is disguised or otherwise difficult to capitalize. So it’s natural to assume that conflict of any kind is bad and should be avoided.
I propose, instead, that conflict can be a boon to any group or organisation – provided it’s managed well, of course. When mishandled (and even when ostensibly avoided) conflict can easily and rapidly spiral out of control and wreak havoc. More insidiously, it can simmer quietly below the surface and undermine that same group or organisation. Here, then, are five reasons to embrace it:
- Conflict is a sign of caring. The first and perhaps most important reason conflict isn’t inherently bad is this: it only begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. If we didn’t care about an issue we would simply shrug it off because we would have no real personal, emotional or financial investment. Having a stake in a project, decision or process necessarily means we have an interest in a good outcome. The challenge is that “best outcome” may be defined differently for each stakeholder. The good news is that the interests of those concerned can be powerful motivators inspiring the co-creation of an effective and lasting win-win solution. But if your team or organisation doesn’t suffer from conflict at least occasionally, it’s a danger sign. It means you’re overlooking something potentially disastrous or else your people just aren’t sufficiently engaged.
- Conflict can improve creative output (and other products). Conflict is an essential ingredient of all literature and film. Without conflict there is no plot, and plot (action) defines character. So on one level the quality, intensity or believability of the conflict depicted probably bears some relationship to the overall strength of a book, movie or graphic novel. Behind the scenes, real-life conflict can also inform and infuse creative output. For example, the well-documented (if extreme) differences between writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett may well have contributed to the success of more than a dozen films they created together including Ninotchka and the Oscar-winning classics Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend.Perhaps a more obvious example of a successful and productive conflict is the Beatles’ catalogue of Lennon & McCartney songs. Whether their songwriting styles clashed or complemented each other may be a question of opinion but it’s safe to say that the blend of their distinctive influences and approaches resulted in an artistically and commercially significant body of work. Whether it was the contrast between tracks on the same album or even the constituent parts of the same song, the interplay between Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective contributions remains as aesthetically appealing as it is financially rewarding. So creative tension can be a positive factor, just as healthy competition can be a strong motivator when band members try to outdo each other in the writing department.
- Conflict can help generate buy-in. “Buy-in” is wholehearted acceptance and endorsement, which is far more powerful than mere agreement. And in order for people to buy into a proposed change, idea or decision they need to feel it’s been truly battle-tested. If there is a pervasive sense that input has been stifled or withheld for any reason, or that a proposal hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, debated and evaluated from every angle, the decision will not stick; individuals and teams will be unwilling to fully commit to a course of action. Movement will be begrudging; lip service will be paid. Support will wane and factions may form outside the meeting or rehearsal room, sniping and complaining. Absent buy-in, any support for a chosen direction, decision or plan of action will be lukewarm at best. So well-managed conflict (or at least open and vigorous disagreement) can be productive instead of destructive because transparency, rigorous peer review and (partial) ownership of the outcome breed confidence.
- Conflict can provide a healthy outlet. Avoiding conflict may feel good in the short term because it means not having to experience the anxiety or fear that normally accompany it. It also means that at least one party will pay a heavier individual price over the longer term. Whoever goes out of their way (literally and figuratively) to avoid dealing with another with whom they have an ongoing, unmanaged conflict will eventually suffer in some other way. Avoidance saps vital energy. It requires continually finding new ways to escape the person or situation. It involves bottling up any ill feelings. The avoider will either refrain from speaking up, experience physical manifestations of their “dis-ease,” quit in frustration, or all of the above. Inevitably these personal impacts start to affect the rest of the group or organisation, and there is an opportunity cost to learning and growth for all parties directly or indirectly involved. Engaging in conflict – and managing it effectively – can allow all parties to assert their needs while minimizing or eliminating any negative fallout. Differences can be channeled into more productive outputs (see reason #2).
- Conflict can increase trust. A paradox of conflict is that if it’s managed well – if process needs and personal needs can be met – it can actually enhance trust and create a safer work atmosphere. Bringing it into the open and dealing with it head-on rather than letting it fester eases lingering fears and anxieties. Groups, teams and organisations that can weather a storm together invariably grow more close-knit as a result of their joint trials. Conflict offers a common bonding experience; the key is to ensure they are not united against each other internally.
How to keep conflict productive, not destructive
Clearly, then, there are advantages to be gained from taking a proactive approach to managing conflict. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to ensure that conflict is productive, positive force and not a destructive one.
The best brainstorming protocols, for example, involve a multi-step process beginning with a “no bad ideas” approach, leaving judgment and debate aside until input from all quarters is on the table. (Remember, too, that not every personality type thrives in the sturm-und-drang of a whiteboard session.) Conflict norming means determining how we handle conflict collectively – what’s OK and what’s not OK – if and when we find ourselves in conflict. These conflict norms and boundaries should be established early and explicitly, with the standards developed, agreed and upheld by all parties. There should also be clear, consistent policies and procedures for dealing with conflict more formally should it become necessary, including pre-emptive training programs, conflict coaching, mediation, or making some other form(s) of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available.
Too often conflict in the arts and entertainment industry is dismissed as the product of ego or some stereotypical image of the creative genius. It’s not that simple. We forgive the eccentricities of the combative colleague – the “difficult” artist, manager/agent, or star employee – because of the overall value their work brings. But left unchecked, this indulgence can erode co-workers’ self-esteem, trust, or sense of safety and security necessary to a healthy working environment. This is as true in the rehearsal studio as it is in the corporate boardroom.
This is not to say that creative types should have all their rough edges removed. On the contrary, they should be nurtured, celebrated, and have their needs respected – while respecting the needs of others. Ignoring or otherwise tacitly permitting destructive, personalized conflict can soon be fatal to your group, team or organisation. Productive, well-managed conflict can be far more profitable.