Creating a Culture of Constructive Conflict
In my work with high-performing organizations, one of the common challenges I’ve noticed centers around this issue of conflict. One question I like to ask a new client is this: “How do you handle conflict here?”. The answers vary and can be revealing. It’s not unusual to hear this response. “Conflict? Gee, we really don’t have much conflict here”. Which is another way of saying “we either don’t see it or we simply ignore it”.
Conflict exists in nearly every organization. Consider the complex array of personalities, experiences, preferences, and perspectives of people in any size organization and it is hard not to imagine the nearly infinite potential for conflict. Add to that the way scarce organizational resources are allocated, and the level of conflict is sure to grow. As if obvious, observable conflict was not enough of a leadership challenge, consider the amount of conflict that exists beneath the surface that rarely if ever is brought to light.
Far too many organizations suffer from what I describe as “false harmony” where members appear to agree and get along but in fact, they do not. Operating under the misguided notion that disagreeing with a colleague or supervisor is a sign of disloyalty or disrespect, employees take the path of least resistance and choose not to “rock the boat” or come off as being disruptive. Consequently, during meetings of teams, departments, or even company-wide gatherings, members hold their tongues even when they are asked for feedback and/or questions.
So, the meeting ends, and harmony abounds. At least until the real meeting starts. That one takes place in small groups around the coffee pot, the water cooler, or after hours. That is where disagreements, concerns, and criticisms flow. While this type of response may make the individual feel better as they get issues off their chest, it leads nowhere in terms of organizational improvement. In fact, this approach simply adds to the level of frustration, confusion, and failure. Why does this happen and what can be done to change this unproductive behavior? What can the leader do to encourage a more open response?
Creating a culture of open, honest, straightforward dialogue, discussion, and debate starts with an insistence that participants weigh in on subjects with honesty, humility, and respect. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable; to challenge ideas without challenging the individual. But doing so requires more than a recognition of the problem and a commitment to solving it. It requires learning a new set of communication skills which, when practiced over time, can lead to a higher level of organizational competency.
One helpful resource is a book by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler titled: “Crucial Conversations”. More of a training guide than a book, it has sold millions of copies and has helped countless organizations large and small address the challenge of addressing conflict head-on, constructively, and skillfully. The culture change that accompanies the development of this essential organizational ability is dramatic. It’s not that there is less conflict, in fact, this skill set can bring to light greater amounts of conflict, which have probably been there all along but now have a productive place to go.
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that constructive conflict can lead to a more open, healthy, and productive organizational climate and culture. As the best performing organizations have learned, that is exactly what it does.
Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., CAE, is the Founder and Principal of Alexander Joseph Associates, a privately held consultancy specializing in executive business advisory services with clients throughout the graphic communications industry.
Joe spent 30 years with NAPL, including 11 years as President and CEO. He is an adjunct professor at NYU teaching graduate courses in Executive Leadership; Financial Management and Analysis; Finance for Marketing Decisions; and Leadership: The C Suite Perspective. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone or text: (201) 394-8160.