Is Conflict Helpful or Destructive?


ArtsFwd just released the results for their survey on conflict management around new ideas, and their findings offer good food for thought! One of several questions the results urge us to re-consider is whether we see conflict as helpful or destructive, and what healthy conflict looks like.

We can all probably remember a time when conflict caused a fissure in a relationship that mattered to us, delayed an important project, or resulted in the loss of something we cared about. Undoubtedly, there is a cost—or, more commonly, a variety of costs—when conflict is managed poorly.

However, when we avoid conflict altogether, we miss the chance to reveal its underlying sources and learn from them. This learning can be essential to the iterative, adaptive process of innovation. When organizations adopt what Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith refer to in Resolving Conflicts at Work as a “learning orientation” toward problem solving, healthy conflict becomes a catalyst for change and an opportunity to make better-informed decisions.

Center Theatre Group: A case study

At Center Theatre Group, we saw this principle at play with DouglasPlus, an ambitious departure from business-as-usual in which the length of the run, audience configuration, performance space, and ticket pricing for each piece in an annual series of unsubscribed productions varies according to the piece’s individual needs. In our first year of DouglasPlus, we needed to establish new ways of working together and, not surprisingly, with that came new challenges.

Kirk Douglas Theatre is home to Center Theatre Group’s DouglasPlus program.

The value of getting curious

Instead of shutting down criticism, we got curious! We surveyed the entire staff and held a variety of reflective meetings to explore the source of communication breakdowns and staff frustration. This process of inquiry led to new ideas and a series of changes, including greater clarity around decision-making processes, which dramatically improved our teamwork and the program.

Avoiding assumptions

One of the biggest threats to curiosity is a reliance on assumptions. Fixed assumptions about another person or department can limit a team’s ability to develop sound and creative solutions by obscuring new information that contradicts pre-conceived notions. This can trap participants in their old patterns of interaction. In Discussing the Undiscussable, William Noonan suggests that curiosity takes a willingness to see your own perspective as partial and limited.

Bringing together diverse perspectives

Our experience with DouglasPlus also taught us the value of an inclusive approach to problem solving. Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has noted: “In our work on innovation, we see time and again how difficult it can be for organizations to find new solutions when they engage only current staff members to re-imagine the future. The most successful work involves diverse groups of individuals focused on a common problem—diverse in generation, profession, tenure with the organization, culture and more.” When we put together cross-function, cross-constituency teams, our solutions were more thoughtful and robust. At times, however, the planning process also became more complicated and contentious.
Refusing to budge from win-or-lose thinking can have explosive results.

Identifying shared interests

A key to managing conflict among diverse perspectives in a healthy and productive way is to identify and prioritize shared interests and goals. One strategy for doing this is to distinguish between rigidly defined goals (what we want) and interests (the reasons why we want it). A focus on prioritizing shared interests allows us to move away from the binary of “either/or,” win-or-lose thinking that revolves around defined goals and expand the available options that a team is willing to accept. As arts organizations, this is where our creativity can shine!

Separating the people from the problem

Noonan tells us that a win-or-lose approach does not work in today’s business climate, which calls for innovation and the synthesis of multiple perspectives. When adversarial thinking does rear its head, conflict over ideas or process can become personal. In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury suggest that in response, we can separate the people from the problem, and be soft on the people and hard on the problem. They also recommend using data and objective criteria for evaluating potential solutions. This means distinguishing our interpretation of the facts from the facts themselves. So, is conflict helpful or destructive? The answer is: it depends.  And, it matters.

Jean Kling is the Director of Institutional Support at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where she has spearheaded several major grants for innovative new program initiatives.