Seeing Differences as an Asset

Any time you have two or more people working together you inevitably will have differences of opinion and potential conflict. It’s a given. Unfortunately, the common paradigm most people hold is conflict is a bad thing, a symptom of organizational discord. Well, the fact of the matter is conflict is value-neutral, meaning that it is neither inherently good nor bad. The value aspect comes into play when we look at our reaction to those differences of opinion – do we handle it well and welcome it as a source of strength, creativity and learning, or do we cower from the potential unpleasantness?

Here in the Northwest we have a prevalent cultural norm that values consensus, harmony and cordial interactions with others. We generally are conflict averse and will go out of our way to keep things pleasant at all costs. Unfortunately, the price organizations pay for that persistent pleasantness is employees not sharing their thoughts, ideas and judgments when they are out of sync with what they think is the majority opinion. People learn to swallow their truth in order to be a part of the perceived general consensus.

The unfortunate side effect of this relentless drive toward harmony often is passive-aggressive behavior. People say one thing to go with the flow but their actions say something different. They verbally support a person, project or goal but then find ways to disrupt or alter the direction of the process due to their unspoken underlying differences of opinion and values about the desired outcome. We’ve all seen it happen and very likely we’ve participated in this behavior ourselves.

So, what is the alternative? How can differences of opinion and conflict be handled in a more productive way that supports the success and strength of your organization? Bottom line, it all boils down to creating a different “conflict paradigm” that begins at the top and cascades throughout your organization where differences of opinion are embraced and seen as a helpful tool to make better decisions. Just as cultural diversity can foster a richer, stronger and more resilient workforce, so too can a diversity of ideas and opinions help an organization overcome potential blind spots when important decisions are made.

The degree to which the voices of all stakeholders are welcomed and given serious consideration early in the decision-making process can directly enhance your organization’s competitive advantage in the fast-paced, ever changing world of business.

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