What is the cost of conflict?

I can recall a time as a Sports Illustrated manager some years ago when I complained to my Director that it always seemed the person I had to deal with to resolve Editorial and Advertising conflicts seemed more intent on banging heads than resolving issues. I was told, to my amazement, the Managing Editor kind of liked it that way. He felt it was better to have people fight it out than to have one side become dominant and surrender too much.

Whatever argument you want to make about the value of “healthy conflict” I can tell you that I felt personally hit in the gut and it changed the way I viewed the players from then on. I strove for one team with one goal and mutually beneficial resolutions but it was clear above me was a “throw them in the pit and let them fight it out.” I felt I was less a loyal soldier and more a disposable gladiator. An exaggeration? Probably, but is there ever only one emotional response to conflict? So how do we best avoid conflict and if it is inevitable then how do we resolve it? The most unasked question however, what does conflict cost?

Let’s define conflict and not confuse it with healthy debate. Surely no leader benefits from prognosticating to a swarm of Lemmings but if the vision and culture is set in a clear, productive and healthy way then differences get aired, valued, tested, evaluated and none of that requires conflict. As a noun conflict is a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one. As a verb it is to be incompatible or clash. Before suggesting a strategic overview to avoid and resolve here are three likely costs of conflict culture which can be individual or cumulative of all three.

  1. Efficiency Cost – Processes are designed to flow, if you picture them in a flow chart imagine the additional steps that resolutions require. Lots of Yes / No diamonds and arrows off to escalations and go-arounds to force things forward. When any process is delayed its efficiency is diminished and anything less than optimal has a price tag.
  2. Emotional Cost – Imagine your conflicts, most people want to avoid the stress, the gut ache or the sheer waste of time. Besides feeling ill effects and becoming less engaged, less effective, conflict discourages creativity. You can’t throw out a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) to a team in conflict let alone a minimal goal. People will go out of their way to avoid conflict or in conflict there is no win-win, maybe a win-lose but more likely a lose-lose despite the outcome, decision or following action.
  3. Culture Cost – To have a high performance team you have to challenge them. High performers embrace challenge but few embrace conflict as a vehicle. Some do for sure, but look in their wake and you will see a path of destruction. This will drive away potential contributors and leave you with an Alpha and a team of timid survivors or worse, two rams regularly butting horns. What would that cost number be? If you said “a lot” that’s probably right.

Let’s accept that a Conflict Culture is likely costly in most professional settings. So long as you have engaged, enthusiastic thinkers who are also human there will surely be some sparks of conflict. That’s okay, occasional sparks can be overcome provided they don’t leave the earth scorched. Given that, we need a RESOLUTION strategy to put out fires and an AVOIDANCE strategy to make sure our resolutions are minimally required.


Avoiding something as a strategy is better set by targeting what you want as much as what you don’t, how to get there and what the reward is for arrival without scars.

  • Set an example – the leader’s action are by far the best way to communicate. Embrace new ideas as good even if it’s clear they may not work, recognize when something is done the right way, reward partnerships and cooperation, promote team with examples and never make any of these things lip service or contradicted with “exceptions.”
  • Never disparage – Teasing can be a harmonious aspect of a culture but it often exceeds boundaries that aren’t always obvious or variable to people’s sensitivity. Sit in a meeting where praise dominates torment, where would you want to work?
  • Value diversity – A greatly underappreciated aspect of diversity is the differing nature of conflict across the human spectrum. While the perception of conflict can differ (“that’s just how we speak to each other”) the presence of diversity often brings a conscious effort to find the effective communication path or can be assimilated to a common good, not politically correct, economically correct.


It’s not unhealthy for conflict to arise but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Should it occur it needs to be identified quickly and a leader should have a strategy for resolving. Here are a few examples:

  1. When You Do This I Feel That… This formula is a way to broker the peace. When accusations of actions occur then defenses go up, counter charges fly and people reach back to old wounds to reinforce their front lines. Make it clear that everyone is entitled to feel however they do, we don’t get to tell one what they shouldn’t feel. Facilitate communication by having people detail how the actions of the other felt to them. This direct intervention creates an empathy opportunity and allows a situation to be re-framed. If positions are hardened at least there is a forced awareness of the emotional consequences inflicted with an action and that same path is more likely avoided in the future.
  2. The Old Pro & Con… Something as simple as breaking down points of view into the good and the bad can avoid the ugly. After each side of each argument is detailed a higher level of detail can be extracted, long v. short term, cost of cons, potential of pros. It’s remarkable how making arguments visible with facts removes much of the emotion and the fear of hidden agendas or malice as a component.
  3. Mediate To Find Mutual Value… Taking time to mediate conflict is a commitment to be sure but helping people see the opposition point of view and urging them to find the value creates bridges to compromise. It is rare that any conflict is one sided so effectively (or professionally if it gets too messy) mediating conflict more often brings a better result by discovering value and appreciating the shortcomings.

Finally, don’t tolerate those who can’t be productive without conflict. Appreciate that there are emotional, cultural and true productivity costs to a culture where ideas and opportunities languish through the suck of conflict. Of course, the easiest way to resolve conflicts is not to have them. That won’t be an accident but it could be a goal.

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