In a recent online poll by Next Element, 72 percent of respondents said they choose compromise to avoid conflict. This data reflects a pervasive negative relationship with conflict; nearly three-quarters of employees are withholding their best selves because of it.

Conflict Versus Drama

If you Google the word “conflict,” some of the most commonly associated words are “management,” “reduction” or “mediation.” Why does conflict have such a bad reputation? The most common reasons we hear are past negative experiences with conflict and lack of skill in actually having conflict.

Conflict, at its core, is nothing more than the gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any given point in time. There’s nothing good or bad about it, but it does generate considerable energy. The real question becomes how we use that energy to address the gap.

Productivity and innovation are significantly reduced when people spend that gap energy in drama. Drama is what happens when people misuse conflict energy to struggle against themselves or each other in order to feel justified about their negative behavior. Drama happens with or without awareness, and it sucks energy away from healthy problem-solving.

There are three typical roles people play in drama:

  1. Persecutors adopt the attitude that everyone else is the problem, so they freely apply fear, intimidation, blaming, manipulation and guilt to get what they want. The result is a culture of avoidance where people play it safe and avoid conflict. Holding back undermines productivity. Playing it safe undermines innovation.
  2. Victims adopt the attitude that they are the problem, so they begin to doubt their abilities and value to the team while quickly assuming they are at fault. They hold back because they are afraid of being rejected or don’t believe their contribution is important. They can become needy, over-adapting to please others while crossing lines around responsibility.
  3. Rescuers adopt the attitude that they are the solution to everyone else’s problems. They swoop in with unsolicited advice and non-consensual helping, believing their solution is the best. This behavior undermines productivity by creating dependence instead of competence, and it significantly hurts innovation by short-cutting the process of healthy problem-solving, discovery and failing forward.

A Conflict Attitude Adjustment

The solution begins with a mind shift in attitudes about conflict. Conflict can be a tremendous source of energy for innovation and productivity if:

  • Conflict is seen as energy caused by the gap.
  • Conflict energy is seen as a resource rather than a distraction.
  • The goal is not to eliminate the conflict but to use the energy to create something new.

The next step is to shift our attitudes about ourselves and others in conflict. The casualties of conflict can be avoided when we adopt these three beliefs:

  • We are worthwhile.
  • We are capable.
  • We are accountable.

How to “Do” Conflict That Supports Innovation and Productivity

Creative conflict requires compassionate accountability that balances care, concern and kindness with attention to results. Too much of one without the other results in drama. Compassionate accountability can be achieved by applying the “Compassion Cycle,” a sequence of skills that allows conflict to work its positive magic.

  1. Openness: Always start with openness. Conflict cannot create unless there is a safe place to do it. Creating a safe place means being vulnerable and transparent about our feelings and deepest motives. Unless you are clear and honest about how you are feeling and what you want, your path toward solutions will be obscured. Equally important is to validate and empathize with others’ feelings and motives without judgment or fear of rejection.
  2. State your wants: People are most creative and motivated when they feel heard and when their work is serving something personal and bigger than themselves. Encourage people to ask for what they really want while avoiding prescriptions for others. Examples are, “I want to feel included” and, “I want to know I’ve contributed to the success of this project.”
  3. Resourcefulness: This step focuses on the discovery of solutions and options, but it won’t work before steps 1 and 2. Resourcefulness involves full disclosure of relevant information and resources, asking curious questions, and exploring possibility. This step is where you pursue answers to questions like, “What ideas do you have?”, “What options are there?”, and, “What could we learn from past successes or failures?”
  4. Let Go and Move on: Resourcefulness hits a dead end when it’s time to make a choice. You’ve generated options, listed pros and cons, and mapped out scenarios. It’s time to make a decision, which leads to a commitment to action. This is hard for some people, because they struggle with letting go of what could have been. Nevertheless, with steps 1 through 3 behind you, it’s safer to take this risk. Productivity accelerates at this point.
  5. Persistence: After making a decision, it’s time to follow through. Persistence is about finishing what you start, keeping promises and persevering when the going gets tough. This step requires that you identify and keep sight of what matters most: your principles, boundaries, vision and non-negotiables. Many great innovations stall out at step 4 because people don’t persist.
  6. Stop and Listen: The problem with persistence is that it’s not open. It focuses more on finishing than listening and is more interested in follow-through than follow-up. And, persistence is hard work; it takes a toll on the body, the mind and relationships. That’s why it’s paramount for continued productivity and innovation that people take time out to check in with themselves and their teams. Step 7 returns us to openness, and the cycle begins again.

Whether you are facing a difficult change initiative, looking to increase productivity or tackling a big problem, making a habit of following these six steps honors the true definition of conflict and helps nurture that energy toward something constructive.