Sales and Sales Management Blog

April 2, 2012

The Bittersweet Necessity of Tension and Conflict in Your Organization

“Donna, I’ve sat through three of your team’s executive meetings, one board meeting, and a couple of regional meetings.  One of your company’s biggest problems is there’s no conflict.  No one is challenging anything in the company.  Everyone gets along just fine, but it seems that everyone has taken getting along to the point that your team and your company are stagnant.  If you really want to see your team and your company grow, get some tension and conflict going.”

I believe that at first Donna, the CEO of a mid-sized financial services company was so surprised and disturbed by my statement that I thought she was going to throw me out of her office.

Then she slowly said, “Paul, I trust you so I’m assuming you have a good reason for saying something that I’d take as a pretty stupid thing to say normally.  Before I determine you’re not the consultant for us that I thought you were, explain that statement to me.”

I did–and now her company is happily engulfed in conflict.

If you want your company or sales team to grow, mature, and become strong, encourage conflict.  In fact, if you want to develop a company or sales team that dominates its market you’ll go out of your way to nurture and fan the flames of conflict whenever they arise.

Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word “conflict?”  Do you think anger?  Do you think arguments about personal territory and personal preferences?  Do you think jealousy, suspicion, and resentment?  Do you think of toes getting stepped on and egos getting smashed?

Those are certainly some things that are rightfully referred to as conflict.  And unfortunately those things arise in every business organizations—and those things have and will continue to destroy organizations.

But those aren’t the conflicts I’m talking about that are good, necessary, and helpful to your organization.

What conflict is good?  That which brings about strong, enduring, positive change to the organization and the members of the team.

Not to get religious on you, but let me begin by quoting a section of Proverbs 27: “just as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”  Iron sharpens iron through conflict and tension, through one piece of iron striking another.  And as with iron, tension and conflict can and will sharpen our organization and team members.

How does conflict bring about positive change?  Positive change comes from challenging the status quo and tradition; it comes when men and women have the courage to question how the organization is conducting its business and how it is treating its customers, employees, and vendors; and when the lower ranks within the organization challenge the decisions from on high based on the reality they encounter in the real world that is often far removed from the executive suite.

For an organization to grow and mature there must be tension and that tension must be generated by conflict—the conflict of honest men and women seeking to improve the organization as a whole.

“Seeking to improve the organization” is the rub—most conflict tends to be “me” oriented in some fashion and, thus, destructive.  Consequently many organizations try desperately to eliminate all conflict.  They have conflict resolution specialists come in and present seminars and maybe even do one-on-one counseling.  They put up posters exhorting everyone to put aside differences.  Like Rodney King, the theme is “can’t we all just get along?”

Yes, on a petty, personal level conflict and its accompanying tension is very undesirable and destructive.  But in regards to business and organizational growth there must be some constructive tension and conflict.  Unfortunately that constructive conflict can easily get discouraged in the general atmosphere of trying to eliminate personal conflict and to generate harmony with the hope that everyone will sit around toasting marshmallows and singing Kumbaya. 

Yet the reality is that if no one is questioning no change or improvement is possible.  When people question, there will be others defending the status quo and tradition, and that is when significant growth and maturity can take place.

When policies, procedures, rules, regulations, old ways of doing things, and traditional perspectives are questioned good things happen.  Sometimes those existing items are determined to be right and good; at other times they are determined to be in need of change, whether just a mild adjustment or a radical tearing down and rebuilding.

Whether or not change is needed, the very act of questioning, of arguing, or looking at alternatives is constructive and profitable for forces the organization to evaluate who it is, what it does, and how it does it. 

Frankly sometimes the tension and conflict is uncomfortable.  And on top of as unfortunate as it is, with human nature being what it is, there will be times when egos and feelings get in the way and complicate matters even more.

As regrettable as it may be that people get the ego or feeling stepped on, you cannot afford to let that possibility stop the organization from benefiting from tension and conflict.

How can destructive ego and personal feeling issues be avoided?  There really is no way to keep them out of the mix entirely.  However, there are courses, seminars, and coaches that can help teach team members how to keep the conflict on a professional level, seeking the best for the company, and keeping their personal feelings and ego out—or at least to a minimum.

There is no way around the fact that tension and conflict is bittersweet.  Few actually like conflict and the tension that naturally comes with it; but the tremendous positive results that come from good, positive, constructive conflict are worth stretching the team and getting out of the company comfort zone.

I’m not advocating that your organization become a corporate version of the Golden Gloves, but if your organization doesn’t have some tension and conflict going on, then your stagnating and soon you’ll get left behind by competitors who are willing to raise, discuss, and argue those uncomfortable questions.


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  1. Never really thought of conflict in this light, but very true. I usually do everything possible to avoid conflict in all situations, not always a positive I now see. Great post, Paul!

    Comment by Pam Burzynski (@PamBurzynski) — April 2, 2012 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  2. Definitely some great points brought up here. Thanks so much for shedding some light on this topic. Never thought of conflict in a workplace like this, but it is SO true!

    Thanks, Ben

    Comment by Ben — April 4, 2012 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  3. Hey Paul! I was intrigued by the title of post and I really enjoyed it. As long as everyone is on the same page, conflict can be productive. Thanks again..

    Comment by Tim Mushey — April 5, 2012 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  4. Creatively and appropriately dealing with conflict is a major part of negotiation in sales . Agree with your salient points.

    Comment by Jacob — April 10, 2012 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  5. Interesting article Paul and while I have always avoided conflict in the past you have given me something to think about. I recently got my team to come up with some budgets for dedupe software and was surprised to find that the competitive edge they felt really helped them deliver.

    Comment by dedupe software — April 20, 2012 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

  6. […] The Bittersweet Necessity of Tension and Conflict in Your Organization( […]

    Pingback by 6 Ways to Argue your way to a better RelationshipELEET MAGAZINE — June 6, 2012 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  7. This is so true. Certainly some good insight on workplace conflict.

    Comment by Data Ladder's Dedeup software — June 21, 2013 @ 12:39 am | Reply

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