Why it’s sometimes important to orchestrate conflict as a leader

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It’s not often that my worlds of mediation and leadership coaching collide. But last week I experienced one of those rare moments. 

A lot of my mediation work focuses on helping to resolve workplace conflict whether it’s a result of an employer having altered the terms of an employment contract after it was signed, or who has deliberately withheld superannuation payments; or unfortunately even more commonly when bullying has become rife creating a toxic workplace. In scenarios like these, mediation offers a powerful solution to effectively address and resolve such conflicts, creating a better work environment for everyone involved. 

The mediation that morning had gone well, and I had scheduled a coaching session with a new client later that afternoon. 

When Jeremy asked me how my day had been so far, I told him that I had successfully facilitated a mediation between two business partners who hadn’t exactly been seeing eye to eye. 

“Great! That means you’re already in the zone”, he said. “This session should be a piece of cake for you then”. 

I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, but then Jeremy explained that he had recently read something about the importance of orchestrating conflict within certain types of work environments and that he was very keen to “turn up the heat” in his team because for the most part “they are so laid back they’re practically deck chairs”. Yes, these were his exact words. 

When I work with leaders (either individually or in a group setting), I often ask them how comfortable they are managing conflict among their team members or peers on a scale of very uncomfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, moderately comfortable, or very comfortable.  

Everyone has a particular capacity for tolerating conflict. Some people are comfortable working through it, while most people avoid it entirely or try to get through it as quickly as possible. 

It’s essential for leaders to recognise that conflict can emerge in various situations, such as when there are differences in perspectives, priorities, or approaches to decision making or problem solving. In such cases, skilled leaders should be able to manage and resolve conflict in a constructive manner, turning it into an opportunity for growth and improvement. 

Orchestrating conflict, on the other hand, is an entirely different ballgame, and needs to be handled very carefully. 

I certainly didn’t want Jeremy to think that anyone can just go ahead and throw a proverbial grenade into a team simply to ‘stir the pot’. Nor would I recommend orchestrating conflict as a strategy for every leader. However, Ronald Heifetz, a renowned leadership scholar known for his work on adaptive leadership (and founder of the Harvard Kennedy School), introduces the concept of ‘orchestrated conflict’ when tackling various challenging scenarios in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers

Orchestrated conflict does not mean creating unnecessary or destructive tension within a team for its own sake. 

It refers to the intentional and purposeful engagement with conflict that naturally arises when dealing with difficult challenges in the work environment that typically require changes in values, behaviours, or beliefs to be effectively addressed. 

Whilst it isn’t something I would typically do in a first session with a new coaching client, during my first session with Jeremy last week I walked him through what Ron Heifetz refers to as the seven steps to ‘productive’ or ‘orchestrated’ conflict. 

Diagnose the challenge:  

The first step in orchestrating conflict is to accurately diagnose the real nature of the workplace challenge. Preparation is key because these challenges are typically not routine problems. Instead, they are complex issues that will often demand transformative change and deep examination of underlying assumptions and beliefs. By understanding the crux of the problem, leaders can better prepare for the conflict that will most likely emerge during the process. 

Regulate distress: 

Team members will often experience emotional distress due to the uncertainty and ambiguity associated with change. With this in mind, leaders should acknowledge and address these emotions compassionately. Creating a supportive environment where individuals feel heard and understood helps manage distress effectively. When people feel supported and their concerns are acknowledged, they are more likely to engage constructively in addressing the challenge. 

Maintain disciplined attention: 

When orchestrating conflict as part of addressing a complex challenge, leaders should resist the temptation to seek quick fixes. By maintaining disciplined attention, leaders can delve into the root causes of the challenge and develop more effective strategies for resolution. 

Give the work back to the people: 

Scenarios involving complicated workplace challenges are not resolved with ready-made solutions. Often the orchestrated or productive conflict will involve empowering individuals and groups within the team to take ownership of the challenge. Distributing responsibility fosters a sense of ownership and encourages innovation. When team members feel like they have a stake in the process, they become more invested in finding creative and sustainable solutions. 

Protect voices of leadership from below: 

Encouraging diverse perspectives is essential when orchestrating conflict as a strategy for effectively tackling workplace challenges. Leaders must ensure that voices from all levels of the organisation are heard and considered. This inclusivity not only fosters a sense of belonging but also enriches the decision-making process by incorporating multiple points of view. 

Orchestrate the conflict: 

Whilst it might seem like I am (or Ron Heifetz is) stating the obvious here to include this as an actual step in the process, ‘orchestrated conflict’ refers to actively engaging in constructive debates and discussions around the complex challenge. This step specifically involves encouraging productive conflict that allows for open dialogue and the exploration of different viewpoints. After all, when conflict is approached constructively, it can stimulate creativity and generate innovative solutions to complex challenges. 

Experiment and learn: 

For most leaders, this whole process will feel like a huge experiment or a drastically new approach to dealing with workplace or team challenges. But encouraging a culture of experimentation (and orchestrating conflict) will allow the team to acknowledge and learn from both successes and failures. 

Once I had talked through each of the steps, I reiterated to Jeremy that consciously bringing conflict into a work environment should never be purely about ‘turning up the heat’ on a team that might be slacking off. Nor should it be about making people feel so uncomfortable that they self-eject. 

Conflict can lead to the exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints, sparking innovation and creativity. By encouraging healthy debate and discussion, leaders can arrive at well-informed decisions and solutions while at the same time strengthening trust and cohesion among team members. 

Having said that, as I pointed out to Jeremy, it’s important to note that not all conflict is beneficial.  

Destructive conflict involving hostility and animosity can be detrimental to both the team’s performance and the overall work environment.  

Therefore, if and when appropriate, leaders should focus on constructive conflict to help establish a culture that values open communication and respectful disagreement. 

Orchestrating conflict should be centred around addressing specific complex challenges with intention and skill.  

It should enable diverse perspectives to emerge, fuel innovation, and ultimately facilitate the discovery of creative solutions to complex workplace problems. 

Remember,  hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping leaders appreciate the subtle nuances of dealing with workplace conflict in order to build strong, collaborative teams. 

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