Savvy small-business owners know that real change and the benefits that come with it seldom occurs without challenging the status quo. Thriving on constructive conflict, entrepreneurs looking to improve their company encourage debate between themselves and their employees, a process that often leads to new ideas and positive change.
“Whereas conflict is a power struggle or disagreement between ideas, constructive conflict occurs when there's a disagreement between individuals or groups that is handled in a professional manner, creating a win-win resolution,” says consultant and speaker Eldonna Lewis Fernandez, author of Think Like A Negotiator: 50 Ways to Create Win-Win Results by Understanding the Pitfalls to Avoid. “Negotiation typically includes constructive conflict, and it’s necessary in order to spark new ideas or iron out and promote healthy exchange and connection between employees and business owners.”
Constructive conflict can best be described as intelligent, well-thought-out differences in opinions and ideas between co-workers and employers, adds Shawn Prez, president and CEO of Power Moves Inc., a grassroots and alternative marketing agency that serves small businesses and music industry personalities.
“Successful small-business owners invite and welcome constructive conflict amongst staff,” Prez says. “They realize that though they're tasked with providing leadership and vision to their employees, no one knows everything. Rather than being content surrounded by robot ‘yes’ men, they encourage opinions and solutions that challenge common thought processes.”
Despite the benefits of constructive conflict, many small-business owners are wary, Fernandez says. “People are uncomfortable with the discomfort of conflict, which is why many don’t ask for what they want,” she explains. “New ways of doing things often make people anxious, even when the change would improve the current situation.”
While she agrees that encouraging debate can lead to positive change, Linda D. Henman, Ph.D., owner of the Henman Performance Group, finds that many successful small-business owners tend to hold a dangerously myopic view, relying solely on their own ideas and seeking only those views that support their ideas.
“Some small-business owners don’t encourage debate and conflict, because they don’t want it,” says Henman, author of Challenge the Ordinary: Why Revolutionary Companies Abandon Conventional Mindsets, Question Long-Held Assumptions, and Kill Their Sacred Cows. “If the business owner happens to be very smart and informed about the industry, the company can enjoy success while he or she is at the helm, but when that person isn’t available, the company usually experiences decline.”
The Upside of Conflict
Given the many advantages constructive conflict can generate, it pays to jump in and reap its benefits. Try these six steps for encouraging constructive conflict at your company:
1. Create a culture of acceptance. Before constructive conflict can be used for the greater good, it’s necessary to develop a company culture where attempts, not just successes, are rewarded, Henman says. “When problems occur, leaders [should] strive to understand cause, not assign blame. Such small-business leaders also deconstruct success in order to replicate it. This type of analysis pours a strong foundation for both learning and change.”
2. Call for conflict. Business owners won’t hear any kind of conflict unless they demand it, but instead of looking for differing opinions that can propel them forward, they encourage group-think instead. The result? "A room full of people eagerly wanting to know what the boss thinks so they can provide echoes,” Henman says. “Business leaders who challenge the ordinary do better. They frame issues and questions, withhold their own opinions and require every person to express an opinion. If they think they’re hearing too many of their own ideas in the room, they can even assign someone the role of devil’s advocate.”
3. Organize brainstorming sessions. Prez holds regular meetings with his entire staff in attendance and encourages employees to voice their ideas. “Our motto is: ‘No idea is a bad idea,’ ” he says. “The team typically builds on the ideas of other staff members, creating an avalanche effect. Some of our most creative campaigns were inspired by one person offering a nontraditional thought or idea.”
4. Trust your employees. “You hire people based on given skill sets that will bring value to your company,” Prez says. “If you thought enough of them to hire them, trust their potentially constructive ideas.”
5. Stick to the issues. “When the group attacks each other instead of the issue, destruction of both relationships and the decision-making process occurs,” Henman says. If things get off track, keep steering people back to the primary topic.
6. Practice makes perfect. “People are often uncomfortable with conflict due to a lack of confidence within themselves, but conflict arises each and every day of our lives.” Fernandez says. “Confidence comes through experience, and experience comes from asking for exactly what you want and not taking rejection personally.”
If constructive conflict isn't something you're encouraging now, it may feel strange at first. But once it's embedded in your company's culture, the benefits you'll get from it will be well worth the effort.
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