Douglas Malloch wrote a poem that has become famous. More to the point, the poem “Good Timber” declares a natural law, “Conflict is Good!”
by Douglas Malloch
The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.
Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.
I learned to swim by being thrown into the deep end of a lake and told to get back to shore on my own. The conflict made me understand and learn how to coordinate movement, and I learned to swim. I learned how to fight by opening my big mouth and having someone bigger close my mouth for me. I learned how to ride a bike by falling off. As a process of learning and developing, conflict has been the driving factor in all of our lives. But, as soon as a person is elected to public office, they seem to lose their minds and think conflict is always bad, to be avoided, and scared of due to the perceived consequences.
Conflict is a tool, and like all tools, when used appropriately, it can build, enhance, strengthen, and create. Whereas, if the tool is improperly used, destruction, damage, and chaos are spawned. Conflict happens; what a person chooses to do with that conflict and how that person considers conflicting occurrences is how the labels “good,” “bad,” “valuable,” “beneficial,” etc., are applied. McShane and Von Gilnow (2004, p. 390) postulated, “conflict as beneficial [when] intergroup conflict improves team dynamics, increase cohesiveness, and task orientation. … [C]onditions of moderate conflict, motivates team members to work more efficiently toward goals increasing productivity.” The sentiment regarding conflict as a tool and beneficial is echoed throughout the research of Jehn (1995). Jehn (1995) reflected that the groups researched labeled the conflict as beneficial, good, bad, etc. Based on the group’s dynamics and the conflicts faced and settled, the groups formed an integrated model for organizational conflict. Essentially, how the conflict is approached and used by the team members individually and collectively dictates how beneficial the conflict is for the team and the organization.
Rao (2017) built upon previous researchers’ shoulders, perceiving conflict being a tool, and provided vital strategies for leaders to employ if they choose to minimize conflict. Rao (2017) provided that conflict builds character, whereas crisis defines character” [p. 93]. Rao (2017) recognized that conflict labels are an individual choice. In organizational conflict, one team could label the conflict as useful and beneficial while another department could label that same conflict as damaging and horrible. When the conflict in an organization has disparate labels, understanding why conflict is disparately evaluated remains more important than changing the label.
Thompson (2008) raised significant points regarding conflict, beginning with a real-life example of how conflict spurred organizational change and growth for the H. J. Heinz Co. Thompson (2008) calls those who actively work to avoid conflict as those taking “trips to Abilene;” included in those making trips to Abilene are those who take conflict personally and choose to become offended, as well as those who choose to not see conflict as a method of ignoring conflict. Thomas (1992) captured again how individual choices about the valuation of conflict opens or closes the door to the productive use of conflict. Ignoring conflict, avoiding conflict, and other strategies of not facing conflict form the most dangerous people to be around, for when conflict grows beyond a point where it can no longer be ignored or avoided, that is the conflict that can destroy people, places, and things.
Thomas (1992) echoes Jehn (1995), Lencioni (2002), and Thompson (2008) in declaring the distinction between conflict as a process and the structure in which the conflict process occurred is critical to how beneficial the conflict will be for the team, business, or society. Consider for a moment, the structure in the organizational environment. Conflict is the mental thinking, adherence to operating procedures, and individuals working become the instigating factor, which is a threat to what is known or done at the current time. Hence, Thomas (1992) provided a keen insight into conflict as a tool, purposeful initiation of a process (conflict) to improve a structure (organizational environment).
When people recognize the power of conflict and purposefully employ conflict, everyone receives the potential to improve through conflict (Lencioni, 2002). Thus, conflict continues to be a tool, nothing more and nothing less. The disparities between organizational conflict labels are critical to understanding the chasm between teams evaluating conflict as the process and business structure. The gap in understanding conflict’s results can create inhibitions to future organizational conflict, create unneeded additional conflict processes, all while undermining the organizational structure.
Why does this matter?
The media keeps postulating that the slim margins between Republicans and Democrats in the US House of Representatives and Senate are bad, and chaos will reign in conflicting opinions. I’m afraid I have to disagree with the media and wanted a common understanding of conflict’s beneficial nature before expressing why conflict in the US House of Representatives and Senate is desirable. From the earliest days of the Continental Congress, America has been born from meeting a shared understanding born from two extreme positions. Early conflicts in American history led to the need for laws to stop dueling with guns and swords.
There are many valuable lessons to be learned from conflict critical to America’s future. For example, had America had more conflict in the US Congress (Senate and House), we would have a budget and less debt. Consider some of the detestable legislation pushed through at the end of 2020 and the 116th Congressional session. With more conflicting ideas and opinions, building strong voices in dissent, those pieces of legislation would have been pushed onto a new Congress for remediation and reconciliation.
President Lincoln is known as a great leader of America in crisis, a reputation justly earned! Guess what, he had a very contentious Congress to face. Through the Congressional contention, conflict, and remediation and reconciliation processes, Congress had to learn to work together under the rule of law. As a point of interest, all the presidents honored on Mount Rushmore had crisis, contention, and Congressional conflict to overcome and achieve American progress. Why do we need more conflicting opinions, slimmer margins, and maybe a few more different and diverse political parties in America’s Congress, because they refuse to listen to the electorate!
I have seen Congressional bodies in several Democratic countries during my travels, and I keep watching how other countries’ Congressional bodies work and do not work. Frankly, I would not mind seeing a fistfight or two break out in the US Congress as a way to shatter the current paradigm and get the legislative bodies working as they should, moving between two extreme points to find the best solution for the people who hired them. People claim politics is a rough game; I say, bring on the conflict and make that job rougher in the hopes of improving performance!
The references are included if you want to further research conflict as beneficial.
Amason, A. C. (1996). Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams. Academy of Management Journal, 39(1), 123-148. doi:http://dx.doi.org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.2307/256633
Baron, R. A. (1991). Positive Effects of Conflict: A Cognitive Perspective. Employee Responsibilities & Rights Journal, 4(1), 25-36.
Brazzel, M. (2003). Chapter XIII: Diversity conflict and diversity conflict management. In D. L. Plummer (Ed.), Handbook of diversity management: Beyond awareness to competency based learning (pp. 363-406). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.
Du, F., Erkens, D. H., & Xu, K. (2018). How trust in subordinates affects service quality: Evidence from a large property management firm. Business.Illinois.edu. Retrieved from https://business.illinois.edu/accountancy/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2018/03/Managerial-Symposium-2018-Session-IV-Du-Erkens-and-Xu.pdf
Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multi-method exanimation of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256-282.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons.
Lumineau, F., Eckerd, S., & Handley, S. (2015). Inter-organizational conflicts. Journal of Strategic Contracting and Negotiation, 1(1), 42-64. doi:10.1177/2055563614568493
McShane, S. L., & Von Gilnow, M. A. (2004). Organizational Behavior, Third Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Moeller, C., & Kwantes, C. T. (2015). Too Much of a Good Thing? Emotional Intelligence and Interpersonal Conflict Behaviors. Journal of Social Psychology, 155(4), 314-324. doi:10.1080/00224545.2015.1007029
Rao, M. (2017). Tools and techniques to resolve organizational conflicts amicably. Industrial and Commercial Training, 49(2), 93-97. doi:10.1108/ict-05-2016-0030
Thomas, K. W. (1992). Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(3), 265-274.
Thompson, L. L. (2008). Chapter 8: Conflict in teams – Leveraging differences to create opportunity. In Making the team: A guide for managers (3rd ed., pp. 201-220). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
© Copyright 2021 – M. Dave Salisbury
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