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Productive Conflict

by David Brock on November 16th, 2018

Over the past week, I’ve been involved in several conversations that have the same underlying theme.  It’s basically around the concept of Productive Conflict.

I believe this is a critical concept–both in how we engage our customers and in driving change internally.  At the same time, I believe it is misunderstood, avoided, and executed very poorly with horrible results.

As sales people and/or as business leaders, we are responsible for driving change.  Whether it is with/for our customers our within our organizations.

Change always creates conflicts, though we may not recognize them as such.  Why change, change to what, change for what purpose, which change/direction, what are the risks, how to change, and so on.

Change is about choice and inherent in the process of making choices is conflict.  This conflict can be small or it can be enormous.

But to be successful, we can’t avoid the conflict.  We must identify it, understand it, manage it, where possible, reconcile conflict, but, sometimes agree to disagree.  Too often, we fail because we have either avoided conflict, or we’ve failed to manage it effectively.

Conflict can be a very powerful tool, we can leverage conflict to crystallize issues, to drive alignment, and to drive action.  This is productive conflict.

But productive conflict is a very tricky thing.  The power of productive conflict is basically driven by motivation.

Leveraging conflict for purely self-centered, selfish purposes is likely to be destructive, in the very least manipulative.  It always fails, either it is immediately recognized for what it is and rejected by everyone else; or because it has failed to get alignment/buy-in and will ultimately fail under it’s own inertia.

But Productive Conflict motivated by wanting to help others or the collective value to the team/organization can be very powerful.  It’s powerful because the underlying motivation is very transparent and aligned with the interests of the others you are working with.  It may not be comfortable, but it creates the “moments of truth,”  and powerful methods of aligning and taking action.  Stated differently, productive conflict can be a very powerful “forcing function.”

This concept is very difficult for people to grasp.  The word “conflict,” is tinged with negative connotations.  We associate fights, violent disagreement, wars, social/economic polarization with the concept of conflict.  We tend to think of conflict in win/lose terms.  We see people exploiting it in manipulative, bullying ways.  We associate it with “disagreeableness,” “impoliteness.”

In our upbringing, we are probably trained to avoid conflict.  We bring that into our business lives and reinforce it with ideas like “the customer is always right,” or misguided notions of being “team players.”  Notions like “being nice,” or “getting along,” inadvertently drive avoidance behaviors.  This avoidance and inability to harness conflict productively leads to huge wasted time/effort with “hidden agendas,” “politics,” lack of focus on identifying and resolving problems.

Conflict, exploited selfishly, can be all these things, and more.

But it can also be so powerful.  Leveraged well, it can help drive great clarity.  It can help us understand our fears, our differences, our disagreements.  It can move us to resolve them, align ourselves, and move forward together.

The implementation of productive conflict has nothing to do with creating fights, being disagreeable, impolite, or whatever negative connotations we have about conflict.  It is usually lively discussion, healthy sharing of ideas, and an openness/respect for different ideas.

Productive conflict is all about your motivation.  It is all about being open to changing your own point of view.  It is all about learning.  It is all about respect and trust for the people you are working with to drive change.  It is all about caring.

And these may be the most telling issues about how we fail to leverage productive conflict, and why we fail to achieve.

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2 Comments
  1. Another great post to get me thinking. I really enjoy where you go with topics like this.

    As I was reading this post, I recalled a great piece of advice that I got from a mentor of mine “if you’re feeling pressure in your sales cycle, you’re doing something wrong”.

    Buying is all about change. And until the buyer has found a way to change without burning down the house, he/she’s not going to buy anything. You can’t manipulate, persuade, cajole, challenge, influence, pitch or position someone to change. You can only elicit change. Help your buyer to find their own way on their own terms, not yours.

    Information doesn’t cause change. If it did, nobody would smoke, everybody would vaccinate and everybody would use their health club membership.

    Charles Green in this recent post (https://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters/the-single-biggest-thing-an-advisor-can-do) captures what (I think) you mean by productive conflict – helping the person to re-frame their problem.

    Helping the buyer understand how they got to where they are, what’s holding the problem in place and how to recognize everything and everyone that ever created the problem or will touch the solution. So they can decide how they want to proceed.

    Your helping them find their own way, “how will you know when your sales people are getting in trouble on a deal”, “what’s stopping you from helping the buyer to understand where they maybe stuck internally” “how will you know when it will be the right time for marketing to target buyers who can buy but aren’t ready yet”.

    Selling doesn’t cause buying/change. I do believe that selling does cause choice – choosing one vendor/solution over another.

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