Jim Duffy: A little office conflict can work wonders for business

Most people steer clear of any disruption in the workplace but a bit of disagreement can bring surprising results, says Jim Duffy

Conflict is not always a bad thing but can create discussion between people and departments. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Many of you out there will do anything to steer clear of conflict. There’s a “let’s keep the peace” attitude and a “cherish the status quo” mentality that serves many of you so well. No-one likes to operate in conflictual situations especially at work. People don’t like internecine squabbling about stuff that in fact and in effect has no real bearing on making life better. Harmony is the mantra that many of you aim to strive towards as you work with colleagues and bosses.

Conflict at work has many negative connotations. It creates discomfort and people can take sides if things become a bit petty. People can get a bit hot under the collar and emotion can pilot conflict into histrionics and drama. No business needs drama. Relationships can suffer and grudges can be harboured for long periods of time. This type of conflict is negative and can have some pretty pejorative consequences on how a business operates and grows. It is debilitating for any business large or small. It can lead to bullying, stress and increased sickness.

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However, I just love a bit of healthy conflict. Why? Well it’s not because I’m a complete jerk… although I do have my moments. It’s not because I want to see people openly annoyed or out of sorts. It’s not even for mild amusement. I like conflict as it is an opener. It makes people think. It moves people outside their comfort zones. It causes change.

Whether you work in a start-up or as part of a larger organisation, the workplace takes up big chunks of your life. It is a dynamic environment where multiple interactions take place daily. Each organisation has its own rules, policies and 
procedures. There is a flow that takes place as the business day 
proceeds. So good, so far… But, flow is fine. Flow is OK. Flow is average. For any business to really move on, compete and grow, then flow is just not good enough. If a stream simply flows on a hot day, it runs the risk of becoming stagnant. It has to move faster to survive. Moving faster in the workplace is also a good thing as it filters out monotony and keeps people cognitively involved in what they are doing and what is going on. In short, it engages them.

And this is where I believe that healthy conflict can play a positive and empowering role in moving any company or organisation forward. And here is why… conflict is a great catalyst for making us listen to others. The art of listening and not just waiting to speak is all too often ignored. Conflict creates a new narrative that although we may feel uncomfortable with it, we emotionally engage with it.

Hearing others’ perspectives on how we could improve something or even scrap it makes us listen and think. There is nothing better for an organisation than for staff to actively and proactively think. It is priceless.

Accordingly, conflict also then creates new and improved ways of working. It creates solutions that were not thought of before. The old saying “we’ve always done it this way” is a killer for any organisation. It has been the death warrant to many a good company.

Creating conflict creates discussion and communication between people, departments and groups. With the internet so prevalent in our lives, many of your staff or colleagues will see better systems and products online that could be better utilised in the organisation. Introducing them, discussing them and having a healthy fight about the why and how and when brings people into the heart of what they are doing. So long as the conflict is all about the business and the customer and not about one strongly minded person’s agenda, then it is healthy conflict.

To put all this into perspective, I knew of a company who conducted its business the traditional way. Telephone calls, vans, trades people and invoices via fax. For those of you reading this who are Gen Y, please look up ‘fax’ on Google. The owner of the business was bored and so were the employees who worked towards their targets and in essence just got on with the job. Then one day the owner ate too many jelly beans and subsequently had a sugar induced idea. Imagine if I could put myself out of business. Imagine if I could re-invent my whole company. He them got all his staff and put them into ‘explore’ and ‘exploit’ teams. They exploited the opportunities within the business and explored the potential outwith the traditional business. It created conflict all over. Managed, of course, as he captured all the outputs of the conflict. Wow, he thought people were thinking in and on the business. And not a consultant in sight either…

The result… a new business model created online where the traditional business still existed, but was scaled to new heights in a digital world. The revenues quadrupled. But, the significant outcome was a wholly new and pacier team who were now thinking about the business as opposed to simply turning up and metaphysically – clocking in.

I think it’s good to have fight now and then. Try it and see how it can benefit your organisation. But, remember you set the rules, Marquess of Queensbury and all that…

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark