Challenging The Status Quo: Why We Can’t Run Away From Conflict

30th June 2015

Posted In: The Topic

Wouldn’t life be easier if we didn’t have to challenge the status quo?

Consider the number of opportunities which present themselves during our working day; opportunities to challenge the ideas and opinions of our colleagues, the demands of our leaders, the expectations of our clients, and of course challenging ourselves to work outside our comfort zones to develop further.

It’s all rather exhausting, especially as a number of these may lead to conflict. So why do we bother?

Words: Nneka Orji

There are benefits. Challenging the norm means that we can address some of the most pressing issues in society (and those within our organisations) by thinking differently, and in turn inspiring others to do so. However these benefits don’t come without some level of discomfort, whether caused by united challenge or conflict. Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes write about the surprise some executives have in discovering the true benefits of accepting and managing conflict. The authors write, “Clashes between parties are the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made.”

According to Mark de Rond of the Judge Business School, conflicts can be an effective way to make us more productive and help our teams perform better. Rather than avoid conflict, we should encourage cultures, which support productive conflict. He writes about “cappuccino teams” – teams that take coffee breaks in the hope of diffusing conflict. In reality, they are unconsciously closing down opportunities to identify innovative solutions to persistent issues, stifling high performers, and leaving their organisations at risk of stagnation. If our working cultures are “psychologically safe” enough for us to express contradictory beliefs and challenge the status quo, we are more likely to exploit the true benefits of diversity.


Why do we avoid it? The female label

Have you tried challenging your colleague or manager recently? What was his/her response? The issue many face with regularly challenging the status quo, and thereby being associated with conflict, is that they get labelled as difficult and “not a team player”. So we choose to avoid conflict rather than face it head on. Is this really another gender issue?

According to research from the University of British Columbia, female-female conflict is more likely to be perceived negatively compared to female-male or male-male conflict. These women are seen to be unconventional, being dramatic, overly assertive, not conducting themselves in line with expected behaviour. And what is expected behaviour? Dr. Deborah Kolb of Simmons School of Management writes that women are viewed more as peacemakers, so any behaviour like confrontation or conflict, which defy this view, can impact women more negatively.

Yet we encourage women (and men) to speak up on issues like bias in order to highlight inconsistencies in our workplaces due to stereotyping, to push back on unrealistic working demands to ensure we lead sustainable careers, and to challenge the status quo so we develop more inclusive cultures and thereby develop a more diverse workforce. These are quite big asks if all women get in return is a label that reads “difficult to work with”.

Challenge and conflict are therefore even more important enablers for the careers of women and other minority groups. Feminist author Phyllis Chesler writes: “Many women tend to choose peace over conflict. This often means accepting the status quo…” Although she goes on to present an argument around female-female support or lack thereof, Chesler highlights the issue of how women generally choose to manage conflict – avoidance.

Novelist and university professor John C. Gardner writes: “All too often, on the long road up, young leaders become servants of what is rather than shapers of what might be.” Not only is conflict management essential for our careers and organisations now, it is critical in terms of how we define the expectations of the generations that follow to encourage true innovation and diversity of thought in the generations to follow. How can we encourage all employees – particularly women – to continue, or start, challenging effectively and managing conflict rather than avoiding it?


Embracing conflict

Based on 30 years of research conducted by Joseph Grenny and others, factors such as job insecurity as seen in recent years, have led to younger workers avoiding conflict in an effort to retain their jobs when in fact conflict avoidance is less likely to lead to job security. Organisations clearly have work to do to support positive-conflict-friendly cultures. Weiss and Hughes suggest developing clear and coherent conflict resolution processes within organisations, similar to those Intel have developed, which provide employees with “tools for handling discord”.

As individuals within organisations, we too have a responsibility to change the way we engage with others if we are to take a more proactive stance in defining the cultures in which we work. We of course cannot challenge blindly, but by learning to challenge effectively, we provide ourselves with many opportunities to shape our careers. Here are three guiding principles to embracing conflict and effectively challenging the status quo.

1. Learn to say no. Push back involves saying no and for many, this is a challenge in itself. Setting clear boundaries and expectations is essential to shaping your career, and this will involve conflict at times. In the short term saying yes may feel like the easier option, but in reality, always nodding can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. Challenging the status quo is then saying no so others can hear in order to drive real change.

2. Leaders – don’t always accept yes. While employees should learn to say no, Professor Michael Roberto also challenges managers to not always accept yes. In his book ‘Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer’ he presents the importance of “sparking conflict”, for example by asking some meeting attendees to play devil’s advocate to test assumptions and provide the necessary critique.

3. Understand both sides of the argument and make your case. In order to make a strong case, it is crucial that you understand the different sides of the argument. Monique Valcour of EDHEC Business School writes about ‘relational agility’ and the associated first step of being more aware of your interaction with others, and then developing a better understanding of their perspectives. She suggests spending 10 minutes meditating which raises awareness of self and others. Even if meditation isn’t something you have done, the idea of taking time out to reflect on the situation and the stakeholders involved is important to developing and articulating your ideas.


Professor and author John P. Kotter writes; “Because management deals mostly with the status quo and leadership deals mostly with change, in the next century we are going to have to try to become much more skilled at creating leaders.” For some individuals, whether as a result of their cultures or previous experiences, challenge and conflict management come naturally. For others, it is a skill to be developed. The important thing to acknowledge is that without conflict, we leave ourselves at risk of just accepting the status quo. And in the words of former US president Ronald Reagan – “Status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in’”.