Have you been to a meeting like this?
A meeting is called to discuss the strategy for an innovative new initiative at your organization. As your team prepares to try something you’ve never done before, deeply held values and beliefs are called into question. The conversation gets ambiguous, uncertain. Differing ideas are put on the table and competing perspectives clash.
When no clear-cut path forward emerges, conflict arises.
What happens next is crucial to your organization’s success.
In our experience at EmcArts, working with arts organizations all across the country, what happens next – whether conflict around new ideas is explosive, avoided, or successfully managed – is a crucial indicator of whether your organization is poised to adapt to today’s rapidly changing environment. Or whether you’ll struggle to adapt when your business-as-usual practices no longer serve your needs.
What were we hoping to learn with our survey?
This fall, we conducted a public survey to gather data that further explores the relationship between conflict management and an organization’s adaptive capacity.
Our hunch was that respondents who report that their organizations have a healthy approach to managing conflict would also report more innovative practices and adaptive behavior overall at their organization.
Why is healthy conflict so important?
Good conflict – conflict around ideas, not relationships – builds teams and helps turn good ideas into breakthrough new approaches. It might be difficult, especially for arts organizations that champion collaboration and consensus, but it’s a necessary part of any healthy organizational culture.
The cost of bad conflict – relationship conflict – is high. It’s almost always destructive in the work setting, leading to fear, anger, avoidance, and inaction – all antithetical to the pursuit of innovation.
What were our results?
Our results clearly support our hunch.
We compared two groups of respondents: 1. Those who reported that their organization supports or champions innovation (total of 57) and 2. Those who reported that their organization focuses on managing the status quo or implements only incremental change to business as usual (total of 68).
We found that respondents from organizations that support or champion innovation were:
- 9 times more likely to report that decision making processes were clear and tailored to the issue (90%) than those from organizations that manage the status quo or implement only incremental departures from business as usual (10%).
- 4 times more likely to report that leaders frequently or always took action to resolve conflict (80%) than those from organizations that manage the status quo or implement only incremental departures from business as usual (20%).
- twice as likely to report that shared interests routinely trump individual agendas to drive conflict resolution (77%) than those from organizations that manage the status quo or implement only incremental departures from business as usual (23%).
- 4 times more likely to report that data contribute to or drive conflict resolution (80%) than those from organizations that implement only incremental change (20%).
- 5 times more likely to report that heated conflict is embraced as a necessary part of change (81%) than those from organizations that implement only incremental change (15%).
When we arrayed all the data, we saw a consistent trend:
There was a clear relationship between an organization’s approach to new ideas and its response to conflict, with those that reported more highly adaptive behavior overall also reporting more adaptive responses to conflict. While we can’t prove causality, we find this link compelling. We found this same pattern across all five of our questions about conflict styles.
How well are our respondents managing conflict overall?
- A significant majority of respondents (66%) reported that they were “not satisfied” or only “somewhat satisfied” with the organization’s capacity to manage conflict around new practices.
- Only 22% of respondents reported that conflict is “embraced as a necessary part of change.”
- In order to strengthen their ability to manage conflict around new ideas, respondents reported a desire for “training,” “role models,” “open communication,” “best practices and case studies.”
Were there other variables or biases?
- 178 respondents started the survey and 125 completed all questions. The results above include only data from those who completed the survey.
- We found no significant correlation between size of organization, focus of organization (presenter, producer, service provider, funder), years of affiliation, years in field, or age with any of the other questions on the survey.
- There was a mild correlation between organizational role and reported level of organizational innovation, with respondents in more senior roles tending to report their organizations as more innovative than those in less senior roles. This raises an interesting question for further study about whether there is a consistent bias in self-reported surveys or perhaps it reflects a communication barrier between senior leadership and others about the true level of organizational innovation.
What does healthy conflict look like?
For this survey, we identified five behaviors that contribute to a culture of healthy and productive conflict. They were taken from the EmcArts Rubric of Adaptive Capacity, which we’ve administered to over 150 organizations. Highly adaptive organizations:
- Develop and share clear decision-making processes around conflict
- Use data as part of conflict resolution
- Prioritize shared interests over fixed positions
- As leaders, take positive action to resolve conflict
- Embrace heated conflict as a necessary part of change
Where can you learn more?
All this week, we’ll be posting resources on our Twitter about managing conflict, so stay tuned. If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic, check out these resources:
- Dialogic Leadership by William Isaacs
- Unlocking Organizational Routines that Prevent Learning by Robert Putman
- Resolving Conflicts at Work by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith
- Discussing the Undiscussable by William Noonan
- Designing Conflict Management Systems: by Cathy A. Costantino and Christina Sickles Merchan
For some quick inspiration, watch conflict expert Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk “Dare to Disagree” about the importance of surrounding yourself with collaborators who have radically different ways of thinking than you.
Conflict management is a muscle you can strengthen.
As Margaret Heffernan puts it:
“We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance, and the law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction–conflict–is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along. But we don’t. And not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away. The bad news is that it won’t go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
At EmcArts, we agree with Hefferman that conflict management around new ideas is a muscle your organization can strengthen if you put in the time, consideration, and training. So get to work!
And don’t be afraid of a little healthy conflict along the way.