The Two Faces of Conflict


The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. – Thomas Paine

A story is told of two men who lived in a small village that got into a terrible dispute. They could not resolve it so they decided to talk to the town sage. The first man went to the sage’s home and told his version of what happened. When he finished, the sage said, “You’re absolutely right.” The next night, the second man called on the sage and told his side of the story. The sage responded, “You’re absolutely right.” Afterward, the sage’s wife scolded her husband. “Those men told you two different stories and you told them they were absolutely right. That’s impossible, they can’t both be absolutely right.” The sage turned to his wife and said, “You’re absolutely right.”

Leaders know a thing or two about conflict. And most don’t like it. But conflict or “storming” as I once heard it described, can be beneficial if handled the right way. Much of what you hear in leadership or management circles focuses on conflict “resolution” which is based largely off the belief that conflict is always harmful. But is it? Can an organization embrace a healthy form of conflict that works for the organization in a positive way? I believe so. Here are two key lessons about conflict and their characteristics that you need to know.

The conflict that divides us

There is no denying that unresolved conflict can be very detrimental to an organization.  But a greater question needs to be addressed. Do you want the conflict to go away as quick as possible because it makes you uncomfortable or do you want to get to the root of the problem? A Band-Aid approach will not help you in the long run. What are some of the characteristics of the conflict that divides us? Here are a few:

  1. Clashing values. One of the most significant causes of conflict that divides organizations happens over clashing values. When values are not clear, not embraced, or are compromised then the end result will be unhealthy conflict.
  2. Personal agendas. If the people within your organization place their personal agendas over the mission of the organization then conflict that divides will exist. If your people are score-keepers and are only interested in what’s in it for them then perpetual conflict will ruin your organization.
  3. Lack of trust. Most conflict that divides any organization at its root is a trust issue. If team members do not feel they can trust each other- or their leader, then conflict is inevitable. Conflict is the language of lost trust.

The conflict that unites us

As already mentioned, I do not believe all conflict is harmful. If we do not understand the source of conflict that divides us we will have a hard time understanding conflict that can unite us. So how do we make the connection and rally around conflict or ‘storming’ that can bring us together? Here are a few ways:

  1. Mutual trust and respect. It all comes back to trust. If conflict that divides is the language of lost trust then mutual trust and respect is the language that unites us. Values must be clear, mutual, and fully subscribed to in order to move forward as a unified team. Honesty is the key word for conflict that unites.
  2. A focus on what’s best for the team. When personal agendas are set aside for what is best for the organization then every ‘storming’ session is about what’s best for all of us rather than just one. The airing out of ideas then becomes team focused which creates an atmosphere where, because of trust, a free-flow of best ideas can be voiced and no one is threatened. Differences of opinion or approach are now welcomed because no one is questioning motives. It can breathe new life into your organization and creativity can flourish.
  3. Principled leadership. “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” says John Maxwell. It is incumbent upon leaders to position their organizations in a way that fosters healthy conflict by means of mutual trust and respect and open communication. Values must be clear and everyone must be engaged.

Healthy conflict can thrive within your organization but it won’t happen unless there is a principled leader in place who understands the difference. Not all conflict is harmful and not all of it is helpful, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of the two.

What do you say?

© 2015 Doug Dickerson



About dougdickerson

I am Certified Leadership Trainer, author, columnist, and speaker. Husband to Alicia, father to Katelyn and Kara, and "Pop" to terrific grandson Tyson. I am an avid photographer, love the outdoors, and like to travel. I'm passionate about sharing my leadership insights and helping people reach their full potential.
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