Throw a little conflict into the mix

Conflict isn't always bad“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  It’s not often that a quote from the renaissance man that is Eminem bears any relevance to life in local government, but this phrase rings true for many in local government.

We’ve spoken before about the difficulties of knowing when to stand up for yourself, when (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) you need to find somewhere solid to stand and plant your feet firmly and when a little more consensus and apathy might be a better course of action.

That being said, conflict in the workplace is a much maligned and misunderstood beast.  Most of us being flock animals are people who want to run with the crowd and who like to be liked.  Few revel in being hated and reviled, although most of us can put up with some mild dislike from time to time.  For the majority however it’s an easyish life we are after.

The underlying issue being avoided is that of conflict.  Most people labour under the impression that conflict is always negative, and are more than able to reel off countless examples of fights, arguments and disagreements which turned sour.  Whether personal or professional, all of this conflict has ended up creating a sense of negativity and disappointing outcomes.

What’s more difficult is to ask people to think of times when conflict has actually been helpful.

When many people think about conflict they instantly picture tension; angry faces, raised voices and polarised opinions with very little common ground.  Most officers have been in meetings where others have gone head to head over an issue (often of trifling importance), creating a divided group of people and very little in the way of positive outcomes.  Rarely are such situations looked back upon with any degree of fondness.

Let’s use an entirely fictional example.  A colleague comes to you to discuss a project they are working on which you believe has some fundamental flaws not just in the methods being used to deliver it, but in the very rationale for it in the first place.  Do you:

a)      Listen to what they have to say and offer some bland advice so that they feel supported

b)      Put your fingers in your ears, hoping they’ll go away

c)       Point out every single flaw in their plan, picking it apart piece by piece and destroying them with your well measured reason and logic

d)      Roll your eyes and tell them to stop wasting your time

e)      Do something else

In such a situation one would be forgiven for trying to spare their colleagues feelings a little; after all, no-one likes being told that they are doing something badly.

However, if an officer asks their colleagues for their opinions on a project or piece of work which isn’t up to an acceptable standard, the very worst thing that any of those officers could do would be to avoid all conflict.  Were you to blithely nod your head and keep all negative opinions to yourself then you are actually putting both the project and your colleague at serious risk of failure.

Introducing a degree of conflict into such a situation can significantly improve the outcomes for the project and the individuals involved.  Sharing what you believe the flaws are shows them that you actually care about their problem and are willing to invest time in analysing it in order to come up with a solution.  It allows them to share deeper understanding of the issue or additional information to either dispute your own concerns or to accept them and take them on board.  It can generate excitement in those who are conflicting, and lead to some fantastic ideas being brought up and either supported or challenged and dismissed in turn.

Some people are particularly good at introducing such conflict into the mix, even if they don’t necessarily disagree with what is being discussed.  Playing devil’s advocate properly is a hugely valuable skill, and means that a problem or issue is always looked at from a number of angles.

However, devil’s advocate does not mean being the devil incarnate.  Conflict in the workplace is a finely balanced beast which must be kept just within control at all times.  Nobody wants to see ideas being challenged turn into something more negative or personal.  Whilst it is entirely appropriate and useful to attack an idea, such attacks should never be directed at an individual.

Going back to our earlier example, option e) is perhaps the best of the bunch here.  Whilst the others may appear more tempting on the surface, each of them will stall any forward movement and result in a blocked project and/or a very disempowered colleague.  Instead, a more suitable approach would be to raise your concerns, but with a view to highlighting and addressing these.  Constructive criticism can only be done when you both criticise AND construct; one without the other leads to arguments with no appropriate outcome or shallow advice which is easily ignored.

So the next time someone disagrees with you about something you are passionate about, try to take a step back and consider the wider situation.  They may be obnoxious, rude and overly direct, but they are also presenting you with an opportunity to either refine or strengthen your own ideas through positive conflict, and such opportunities do not come along every day.

If you do it properly then you may just be able to stand up for something without making quite as many enemies as Slim does.

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2 Comments on “Throw a little conflict into the mix”

  1. localgovalso Says:

    I agree cautiously… while fudged consensus isn’t a sole way of running an organisation it’s absolutely essential to get some agreed grounding in order that the big challenges can be understood consistently. How often do these criticisms arise because person A doesn’t believe that the project person B is working on should be done at all? (and undoubtedly vice versa).

    As officers we can come across as simply picking away at the little things and undermining each other for the sake of it via conflict rather than addressing the fundamental flaws in a given project or process. To me it comes down to *when* that dialogue is held. Too often reports, presentations, project plans presented as a done deal with ‘any comments?’ type questions are the only opportunity other officers get to comment on a new piece of work.

    Another part of the problem, particularly in policy, strategy or performance type areas, is that without a clear delivery portfolio the written documents or the idea are often all an individual has at any one time to hang their professional credibility. When that credibility is challenged, often vociferously, it creates a deep (and completely understandable) defensiveness.

    I’m starting to find that if I’ve really annoyed someone at work it’s usually far more because of the way I’ve worked or the way I’ve commented, than what I’m working on or the content of a comment.

    Anyway, thoughts and comments would be much appreciated (just please don’t challenge my preconceptions)…

  2. […] on the blog and Twitter have been where we have disagreed (indeed, we have even written about the benefits of creative conflict), and they often go on to inspire further posts and comment from […]

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