Conflict, Conformity and Business

Conflict can be fascinating. It can be like fire…destructive on one hand and a source of life on the other. It’s easy to only look at the destructive side but, as Margaret Heffernan points out in her TED talk, conflict is a source of learning and enhanced performance.

*Please join us Friday, November 2nd at 5pm BST/12pm ET/9am PT for the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz as we discuss “Conflict, Conformity and Business”. Not sure how to participate? Please click here for tips and advice.

Rock the boat?In Heffernan’s talk, she cited a survey from New York University that reported 85% of executives were reluctant to voice concerns in their organizations. That seems pretty high but it could be accurate. Many times people will talk quietly among themselves about an issue. However, when it comes time to say something publicly, it can be hard to find someone willing to express the concerns aloud. Heffernan points out that many of the disasters around the world are actually due to people in the know not questioning organizational decisions.

Why do we prefer conformity over preventing scandal, disasters and customer service problems?

It’s easy to point the finger and say it’s all about fear and we shouldn’t be so afraid to express our concerns. But there is something else at play here. On the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz, culture is mentioned a lot. Each organization is its own world. There are rules and norms which support conforming to this “world.” Now this culture can be good or bad for everyone who gets paid by the organization. Since the rules and norms are reinforced, conformity happens. This conformity encourages cooperation, efficiency and peaceful co-existence. However, it can hinder conflict. A classic psychological study from the 1950’s showed that people would deny their own senses to go along with the group. And while conformity becomes less of a factor with larger groups, organizations are often grouped into smaller units. Small groups tend to ensure more conformity. But there are other factors that support conformity:

  • relying on others’ judgements when faced with ambigous information
  • if people are similar to ourselves
  • need for social approval
  • the use of the fear-then-relief cycle
  • deference to authority

Is it a kind of love?

Heffernan in her talk describes dissent as a kind of love. She goes on to say, “Because you simply won’t commit that kind of energy and time if you don’t really care.” She doesn’t necessarily say it’s a love for another person so you might infer that it could be a love for the organizational’s ideals, social good or a personal value. This act of love in an investment in your team being its best possible self. This reference to love is a big statement since most people in organizations are afraid of conflict, even if it is minor. And yet, studies have shown that if there is a dissenter present on a team, conformity is reduced. And it takes positive regard to do as Heffernan also suggests…you have to be willing to change your mind. This love, this give-and-take approach is what allows discussion, debate or even arguments to promote creativity and problem-solving

Conflict is necessary to kaizen

If we are to have the “thinking organizations and thinking society” urged by Heffernan, conflict as a way to score points and hurt someone else is contraindicated. The greater challenge lies in our development of sending and receiving messages that examine the processes, policies and culture of each business. Sharing dissenting views opens the door for cherished biases to be debunked, unnoticed possibilities to be seen and people to experience conflict as life-affirming. This is kaizen – improving the organization and the people within. Wouldn’t be something if conformity encouraged a multitude of perspectives as the fulcrum of business success?

What do you believe are triggers for conflict in the workplace?

Where have you seen conflict be a source of learning for you?

Why do we prefer conformity over preventing scandal, disasters and customer service problems?

What balance can global organizations create between conformity & encouraging give-and-take of ideas w/out threat of personalized conflict?

About the author:  Elli St.George Godfrey, founder of Ability Success Growth and small business coach/trainer, is the host of KaizenBiz. I’m passionate about business becoming a more human-centered place so I host this chat to connect business ideas and develop people.This passion shows up in my work with my clients. Whether you are expanding in your own backyard or into another country, Ability Success Growth guides established small business owners to unlock the CEO within during times of transition and growth.