Good Conflict

Good Conflict

Most people are breathing a sigh of relief now that the presidential campaign is finished, even if their candidate lost. People were tired of the negative ads, the stories of infighting, and the political disagreements with friends, neighbors, co- workers and family members. They want to move on, patch up their differences, and address the huge issues facing the country today.

But as people move forward, it is important to remember that conflict is here to stay. In fact, not only is it here to stay, but some of it is both good and necessary.

Back in 1965, a psychologist named Bruce Tuckman proposed the Forming Storming Norming Performing model of group development. (He subsequently added a fifth stage, “Adjourning,” which I am not going to discuss here.)

Basically, this model says that high-performing groups go through three stages before they become high performing, the second of which is conflict, or “storming.” If you think back to teams of which you have been a part, you can probably recognize these stages.

During the first stage, “forming,” people generally rely on the designated leader for direction. Often people avoid doing much work during this phase because disagreements about the work might cause conflict. The team members don’t know each other yet, so they tend to be polite and friendly towards one another.

Imagine the typical college experience. During the first weeks, things seem new and exciting. You like your classes, you meet a lot of interesting people, and you and your new roommate spend time together, getting to know one another.

After a while however, people grow tired with the first stage. They move into “storming,” as individual personalities and ideas begin to emerge. People get more engaged in the work, and many of them look up to the designated leader less. They begin disagreeing, vying for position, forming coalitions, and realigning groups. Ultimately conflicts emerge – sometimes among members, sometimes between members and the leader.

At this point in a typical college experience, you and your roommate are constantly bickering with each other, you’re tired of meeting new people, and you have decided that your history professor is an idiot.

While unpleasant to endure, the conflict stage is not only a good thing, but is necessary to group development (assuming that it doesn’t get out of hand). If people can disagree with one another and resolve their disagreements, then they are more willing to trust one another. They are more confident that their colleagues will listen to them when they raise new ideas or challenge existing assumptions. They begin building consensus and working effectively together. They agree on the rules, values, and standards of professional behavior that will govern how their team will work together. This is the third, or “norming” phase.

Again, back to college. You have now told your roommate how much her sloppiness bothers you, and she has told you how much your “borrowing” of her food bothers her. You’ve both apologized and made an effort to improve. In addition, you realize that your history professor is not an idiot, but is actually so intelligent that you were unable to follow her ideas at first.

If a team continues along the right trajectory, it will reach the “performing” stage. In this stage, people work well together and independently. They are both individually motivated and motivated by the team’s goals. Ideas are shared, openly debated, and openly accepted or rejected. External goals are regularly reached or exceeded.

By this point in college, you and your roommate understand and accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You may spend less time together, but when you are together you enjoy one another’s company. And you’re getting an A in history.

So what does this mean for you as you manage your organization or work with your colleagues? It means don’t panic at the first sign of conflict. Let people work out their

differences. In fact, encourage them to do so. Being overly conflict adverse can actually be more harmful to your organization. It stifles free exchange of ideas and inhibits the development of trust because it does not allow people to figure out that they can work out their differences.

That being said, there are times when you should act. If people get stuck in the Storming phase, fighting about the same issues repeatedly, or if the disagreements become overly personal, cause attrition, and really damage morale, then you may need to step in. But that is a discussion for another day.