Friday, April 1, 2011

Healthy Conflict

Is there such a thing? I’m not talking about conflict on the way to work, speeding down Route 8 to the office and giving other slower vehicles your version of sign language. No, I’m talking about real, healthy conflict at work.

Yes – healthy conflict. There is such a thing!

In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the concept of “healthy conflict” is discussed. Conflict that pushes others to get on board with a new direction. Conflict that engages team members and helps communicate a key message. Conflict to grow beyond what you feel is possible. Conflict that brings in an audacious revenue goal or surpasses performance metrics and expectations. Even conflict that brings people together to mend a broken relationship. Good, healthy conflict separate from anger and disgruntlement.

I am fortunate to be a leader for FedEx Custom Critical, a transportation company located in nearby Uniontown, Ohio. At FedEx Custom Critical, many leaders intentionally set the atmosphere to engage in healthy conflict. We will often push our team members and direct reports to think on their own and make decisions through empowered processes. Whenever you empower others to make those decisions, there is the potential for varying viewpoints, which could create conflict. Cool, right? Well, not when being right is sometimes wrong or if your emotions come out sideways.

One key component to promoting healthy conflict is making sure the conflict is not personal. If you are debating a topic at the office, and specifically disagreeing because you feel you are right and they are wrong, abort the mission! A personal debate for the purpose of being right can become disastrous.

Several years ago I recall arguing with a peer in my director’s office where I felt (and convinced myself) that I was right and he was wrong. My director was in the room somewhat monitoring the dialogue and observed the tension developing by the sentence. The outcome? As I started seeing red (come on, you have all been there), my dialogue and conversation got a bit out of hand. I was speaking fast, arguing my points and taking shots where I could get them in. My director became so frustrated with my behavior that he actually left his office stating, “You are on your own on this one.”

I since have learned that while I may have been right, I damaged not only trust with my director, but also with the person I was engaging in conflict. I am sure you aren’t surprised. This is what happens when we are learning how to engage in healthy conflict. Sometimes, it just comes out sideways. And for what reason, just so I could feel better about being right and proving someone else wrong?

There are a few lessons learned here. First, I should have been better prepared mentally to engage in the conflict. I was tense going into the discussion and basically was picking a fight to prove I was correct. I should have planned my discussion and slept on it overnight – maybe even mind-mapped my conversation to make sure my discussion went smoothly. I also could have worked out or done some physical exercise to lower my energy and come into the meeting more focused. Instead, I was impatient and came in with my dukes up, wanting to get my point across at that moment.

The second lesson learned is that while I was engaging in conflict to better the mission of the business, it did not justify how I was behaving. In conflict, you can be honest, straight forward and deliver a tough message. I simply wasn’t mature enough at that moment to do that in a manner that wasn’t aggressive or hurtful. I should have been the leader in the situation (although I had the lowest ranking title in the room) and started the conversation, “Can I give you a different point of view?” Or I could have asked, “Is this a good time to give you an alternative solution?” Even when escalating up, there are appropriate ways to coach, direct or guide a conversation.

So when have you been in conflict at work? Again, not the sign language version on the road, but real good healthy conflict at the office? Was the conflict successful in producing the desired results? Is your company an organization that promotes conflict in order to drive positive change? How about you personally as either a peer or a leader? Do you set the tone and encourage the activity? Can you engage in conflict – even leading a conflicting discussion and not have any negative recourse? Have you ever sat back and analyzed how it went after you were done? Did you behave poorly, or did you lead the situation and negotiate the landmines?

Let me hear from a few of you and we can then take the discussion to another level.



Scott Garchar is the Operations Manager for the Air Expedite and Temperature Control Services department at FedEx® Custom Critical. Focusing on premium air transportation solutions, Scott’s team provides domestic and global shipping options for high value products to a variety of customers located throughout the world.

Scott has held numerous leadership positions during his 17 years of employment in the transportation industry. He has lead dynamic teams in the Surface Expedite, Marketing and Communications areas. Additionally, Scott was named business development manager for the company in 2002 and was instrumental in expanding FedEx Custom Critical service capabilities into and out of Mexico and other countries.

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