Conflict is a precondition for innovation. Conflict-free workplaces just don’t exist, nor should they. Good CEOs and leaders need to embrace, encourage and generate more conflict if they want creative, dynamic cultures.
There’s an old expression that says “if you aren’t arguing with your partner, then you don’t need him.” In her TED Talk, entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan speaks of “thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers — it’s a fantastic model of collaboration.
I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators.” Effective leaders dare to seek out constructive disagreement and capitalize on conflict.
Make Sure You Understand Positive Conflict
When approached with an open mind and a sense of shared goals, conflict can be the mechanism that allows teams to deconstruct issues, lets ideas bubble to the surface, and protects managers from making bad decisions.
It is not ideal, for instance, for a leader to present an idea or course of action to a team and be met with silence. Their team’s “agreement” allows poorly conceived ideas to come to fruition – that “echo chamber” that Heffernan was talking about.
If you have an organizational culture that is not averse to conflict, people are willing to bring up discordant ideas and present them in a helpful way. It’s this type of conflict that drives better ideas – and puts those bad ones out to pasture. It’s this type of thinking and constructive disagreement that produces better decisions, and therefore, better results.
The Trust Factor
A recent VitalSmarts survey revealed that 95 percent of people struggle to confront coworkers and supervisors about concerns, and CEOs and senior executives are not exempt. People fear engaging in dialogue that might get passionate. Why? Because they don’t trust each other. It’s that simple. They don’t trust the motives of other people.
If a coworker, manager or coach gives you feedback that is meant to help you improve your performance or drive change, for instance, he or she has a noble and honest motive. If you trust that person, and he or she trusts you, then you accept that constructive criticism.
It’s when you’re unsure of their motivation that you begin to push back. Conflict becomes a fight rather than a passionate dialogue, and this is why people try, often at virtually any cost, to avoid it. The team’s lack of trust prevents members from engaging in conflict that could resolve issues or lead to better results.
Three Steps to Foster Constructive Conflict
How can leaders foster conflict that resolves challenges and promotes better thinking, ideas and initiatives?
Don’t be afraid of conflict. When conflict occurs, an immediate response is to shut it down. It activates the fight-or-flight response, and flight is the default setting. “Let’s stop arguing about this. I don’t want to hear this anymore.” While leaders shouldn’t let destructive conflict get out of hand, conflict that can advance a cause, help them make a better decision, or to discover the truth needs to continue. Manage it, monitor it, but don’t tamp it down.
Create trust. Make sure your team has enough trust in one another to get out of their comfort zones – without fear of recrimination. Allow constructive conflict to continue, modeling ways to handle it from a fact-based perspective. Each experience builds a foundation of trust.
Build a culture in which people feel safe and comfortable engaging in conflict. Fear of conflict is a cultural issue. If you develop a culture in which people are afraid of conflict, avoiding it becomes the standard way of operating. Instead, nurture a culture that addresses issues head-on and does not shy away from dissent or discord. Conflict may not be comfortable, exactly, but people will know when, and how, it is appropriate to engage.
Actively seek opportunities to engage in passionate conversations with diverging viewpoints. Better ideas, products, processes, policies, and initiatives reveal themselves in the middle of conflict.