Use Conflict to Improve Collaboration

When it comes to collaboration, words like support, positive feedback, communication, listening, and mentoring permeate the conversation. However, competition and conflict can also benefit collaboration. Being agreeable and complimentary are all well and good, but we also need counter arguments, constructive criticism, and ideas that challenge our way of thinking to ensure we aren’t getting stuck or creating a bubble of confirmation bias.

Conflict should be viewed as an opportunity and not a constraint in the collaboration process. The simplest strategy is to pursue win-win solutions wherever possible. Expanding information and understanding, reducing risk, and varying value for individuals are all tools to increase the win-win process. For example, many of the work at home discussions are based on historical perceptions rather than an analysis of a job’s structure and requirements. Coming up with solutions that benefit both parties is a great way to turn conflict into something positive.

When it comes to risk, it is well known that we underestimate the upside and overestimate the downside of decisions. Consider the fact that losses are limited to your investment while gains have almost no limits. Do we understand our risk in a situation? When can we and when should we pursue “out of the box” solutions rather than the most probable outcome?

Value can also increase by providing different costs and benefits. Most retail transactions offer mutual gains by providing benefits for the buyer and seller. Issues like service and quality can also increase the long-term value and satisfaction of the customer.

Further, it’s important to remember that conflict and competition are task oriented and not personal matters. For example, it is fine to reward all the participants in little league games. However, we should also give special recognition or rewards to participants who show excellence. The purpose is not to make anyone feel bad, but to acknowledge hard work and encourage improvement. We have all had coaches, mentors, and teachers who pushed us to do our best. That can be done in a positive way, but sugar coating doesn’t often help us improve. It may even hinder our progress. Constructive criticism is essential to learning and developing. And we need to know how to give and receive it effectively.

Conflict is often a result of miscommunication or an unwillingness to hear another side. Thus, listening is a great collaboration tool that can lead to mutual benefits that increase the value of a transaction. Many organizations are debating the effectiveness of working from home versus in office after the pandemic. Convenience, commuting time, cost, and freedom all favor working from home. Communication, interaction, and fewer distractions seem to favor working in the office. Much of the discussion seems to argue one side or the other rather than having an open discussion in an attempt to hear the other side, understand the parameters, and develop maximum solutions. And this often involves some sort of compromise.

Cartoon of various symbols to display the number five, with one saying "Hey... let's calm down.  I think we are all just trying to say the same thing."

Compromise is a common tool to reduce conflict and increase collaboration. However, you must understand the parameters, process and outcomes. For example, compromise can be a great tool in allocating scarce resources in a fair way like compromising on budget allocations to meet different needs. The effectiveness of compromises is also highly dependent on the situation. Issues like safety, security, and legality have little room for compromise. In contrast, uncertain decisions, like product development, almost always require the flexibility of compromise. For example, forecasting has lots of factors, is subject to change, and is seldom 100% accurate. You need the flexibility to compromise on the process, analytics, and risk of forecasts. In particular, using data from 2019, 2020, and 2021 can be highly uncertain because of the pandemic.

Collaboration also enables us to examine alternatives and potential challenges. We must ensure that diverse components and perspectives are included. This might mean welcoming criticism and ideas that challenge our own, but through this “conflict,” we may find greater success. A common challenge that arises here is integrating creative and analytic approaches. It may seem like these two are in conflict with one another, but finding a balance between them will help you develop stronger strategies and/or solutions. This might include discussions of integrating risk and intuition when assessing the probability of success.

Collaboration can be affected by organizational tradition and structure as well. Many large companies have tunnel vision, organizational constraints, and ignore emerging technologies and possibilities. They lack the flexibility to respond to the needs of the market and rely on the use of outdated solutions to deal with new opportunities. They fail to allow the vision, entrepreneurship, and risk necessary to succeed.

So, how do you collaborate in a zero-sum game? Collaboration assumes some mutual goals, which may or may not exist. Winning or losing a game, election, or bet are clearly win-lose situations. But a situation can change if the parameters change. I played high school football for a small private school. We practiced against one of the better large public-school teams. Our team got destroyed every time, but we got more out of the game because we were challenged and, thus, better prepared for the regular teams we played during the season. Sometimes the “win” for the loser is what you take away from the experience—that can be a lesson, practice, or the chance to test out a new strategy.

The benefits of conflict include:  Improved communication; Open information sharing; Vigorous creation of ideas; Higher-quality decision making; Improved working relationships; Innovative solutions; and Less stress, more fun

Expertise can also be a difficult issue to incorporate into a collaborative environment. We frequently rely (without question) on services and recommendations from people in healthcare or IT. How many times do we even question a doctor about alternative remedies? When possible, doing your own research is useful, but you also need to recognize when to accept an expert’s advice.

Conflict and competition exist everywhere. Whether it’s a rival sports team, a company that provides the same service as you, or a miscommunication with a friend, it’s something we will always have to deal with. So, next time you find yourself in conflict with someone or something, look at it from a different perspective. Can a competitor push you to be better? Can this argument with a family member encourage a conversation that helps you better understand each other’s needs and bring you closer? Can this conflict with a coworker inspire a collaboration that produces something even greater than your original ideas? Instead of feeling that conflict is a hindrance, try to think of it as an opportunity to see things differently and gain more input for decision-making. When handled effectively, conflict can increase collaboration and improve solutions.

Related: Our Commitment to Women’s Rights Needs New Parameters