“Healthy Conflict” – Now that’s an oxymoron!

wrench_conflict_by_fleet_feet-d4asrmpI have to be honest – there is nothing in me that spontaneously relates to the idea of conflict being healthy.  Consequently, as I approached what Levi (2014) had to say about the “benefits” of conflict, I did so with some reservations.

These reservations have much to do with some of the past experiences I’ve encountered in group life.  I can’t recall experiencing what I would consider “benefit” from the conflict in these situations.  There were instances when team members stopped speaking to one another and there was a real threat that the team would not be able to complete the assignment due to the conflict.  I remember just wanting the experience to be over and thinking that the best approach in the future would be to avoid conflict at any cost.

After reading the Levi (2014) chapter on managing conflict, I began to consider a different perspective.  One might even say, I began to appreciate how the right approach to conflict could indeed be beneficial.   Specifically, the reading points out the following benefits of conflict:

  •             It encourages the team to explore new approaches
  •             Motivates people to understand issues better
  •             Encourages new ideas

(p.129)

These words, in particular, really struck me, “In a dynamic team, conflict is a normal part of the team’s activity and is a healthy sign” (Levi, p. 126).  Perhaps, conflict is not to be feared or dreaded after all, but rather embraced as a normal part of group life.  Additionally, if handled appropriately, conflict can lead to better decision making and more efficient team work.  This lesson was brought to life for me recently as I met with a group of physicians to finalize a scenario for team training.  We met to outline each step in the scenario, as to what would happen with the patient and what action we wanted the learners to take in order to accomplish the goals for this particular training exercise.  As the physicians discussed how their learners might respond to each development in the scenario, one physician commented that it might be good for the learners not to agree on a particular course of action at one point, perhaps, even to experience some conflict in their decision making, in order to thoroughly examine what was going on with the patient and consider the best treatment option.  Specifically, the physician mentioned that if they all agreed on a particular course of action without questioning what they might be overlooking, they might do the wrong thing and potentially risk the welfare of the patient.  There it was, right in front of me – a perfect example of the benefit of conflict in group life.  As the Abilene Paradox illustrates, agreement among group members may seem the path of least resistance, but it is a path that ultimately may lead in the wrong direction.

In summary, the” take aways” from this reading for me are:

  •             Conflict is a natural occurrence in group life
  •             Conflict may have a positive or negative impact on group life, depending on                  how it is approached
  •             Appropriate management of conflict will benefit teamwork

So it seems that conflict can indeed be healthy, after all!

Levi, D. (2014) Group Dynamics for Teams, Los Angeles, SAGE Publications.

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3 Responses to “Healthy Conflict” – Now that’s an oxymoron!

  1. lsniestrath says:

    One of the difficulties that I experience as a learner is how to communicate what you’ve learned in a way that others will see as welcoming. I agree with the physician who suggested an opportunity to dissent when forming an opinon. Perhaps as a society we should provide the setting for learners to discover the benefits of conflict? Quite frankly, I avoid conflict on a routine basis. I weigh the benefits of engaging in it and consider what the opportunity will cost me. If the situation understands, welcomes and values conflict then I would certainly be more willing to engage in it. In some settings, the culture of the group does not tolerate conflict. The paradoxes of group life are certainly interesting to consider, yes?

  2. abryk says:

    “Perhaps, conflict is not to be feared or dreaded after all, but rather embraced as a normal part of group life.” I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Your experience at work also offers a unique perspective. Most of the groups I have participated in do not have any sort of life or death ultimatum attached to them. However, this is often the case on health care teams. Failure to contradict can mean mistakes made and lives lost. So maybe that’s the difference. When conflicts arise in a normal group, we see the conflict as being about ourselves. We get defensive and blinded to others’ points of view. But if we can view the conflict as something outside of ourselves, but also something in which we are involved and can change for the better, then maybe we can learn to address conflict in healthier, more constructive ways.

  3. ppk says:

    Recognition of conflict is absolutely essential and channel it in the right direction. As Levi(2014) says unhealthy conflict is bad while healthy conflict is actually good for the team. People are naturally trained to avoid conflicts. But it is always better to have a win-win situation in any scenario!

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