Now that you have your team comfortable and are in the process building a level of vulnerability and trust with each other the next issue to tackle is learning how to manage conflict. Most of us avoid conflict and see it as a bad thing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Avoiding conflict can be very destructive and can pull teams and businesses apart. It is not the conflict that his the issue it is how we deal with conflict that makes it either negative or positive. None of us like conflict and typically we look to avoid it. We tell ourselves that it is really to avoid making the other person uncomfortable but in reality it is far more about not feeling uncomfortable ourselves. But conflict is necessary and needed if companies are going to innovate and thrive. Innovation is incubated in those leadership meetings that have robust dialogue and the conflict that comes with it. Here are two examples to compare.
Defending Your Life
This large company is run by a leadership team that is made up of several different departments under the leadership of the president. Their market deals with technology and as such is fast paced and high volume and therefore need to have regular leadership meetings. No one looks forward to these meetings. These meetings are tense, no one really wants to stand out or push back. Decisions are discussed but it is not a good idea to be found in disagreement with the president (who typically drives most of the initiatives) and so conflict with respect to pushing back on ideas does not really exist. In addition the departments are encouraged to compete with each other for resources and in fact go through lengthy processes of presenting and defending requests for those resources with the other department heads called on to "critique" and challenge the presentations. Even though this has the appearance of being a team exercise it is well known that is it not as the president has the final say on which projects get approved. Often it get personal and ambushes occur frequently because department heads horde information and are not willing to share it with each other. Nobody really likes this model but because it is encouraged by the president no one wants to be seen as pushing back on it and so all avoid bringing it up. After each meeting everyone goes back to their respective departments either bloody and bruised or thankful that they were not the ones on the hot seat. Departments are silo-ed and isolated and innovation is something that is a catch phrase but not much more. Turn over is on the rise and department metrics have been on a steady downward trend.
What Do We Need To Do To Achieve Our Mission?
This group is also a technology player. The president conducts weekly leadership team meetings with the various department heads and they too all compete for limited resources to run projects. Here is where the similarity ends. This group under the mentorship of the president have done a couple of things differently. First they came to an agreement on their mission and committed to one another that all decisions going forward be measured exclusively on whether they move the company forward in that mission or not. Second they came up with a short set of rules for their meetings; first silence means disagreement so speak up and get involved. Challenge ideas and not people, push back but always within the confines of respect. Everything gets put on the table at the meeting (if your bugged about something say so) and debated - vigorously! Does the decision enhance the mission or not? Lastly, when the meeting concludes everyone knows who is doing what and everyone stands behind the decision.
In one meeting one of the department heads called one of the other department heads to account with respect to how they had communicated the implementation of new HR software which had been debated and agreed upon by the team. He expressed that their loyalty first and foremost was to each other on the team and by communicating this initiative in a less than positive light they had in fact made the leadership team look divided on this issue where buy-in was so crucial. It was awkward and initially you could have heard a pin drop in the room. Finally the offending department head admitted that there had been something bugging him about the software but had not shared it in the previous meeting when the final decision had been made. He admitted that his misgivings about that one item had definitely tempered his communication back to his group. He also admitted too that his college was right and it had not put the team in the best possible light. Rather than stand this person up in front of the proverbial firing squad the group circled back to address the concern that had been raised. Once that was resolved they took the unprecedented step hold a "town hall" meeting with the staff to be frank with them about the new HR software and some of the concerns that had arisen and to share that the leadership team had worked through those issues and was now solidly behind the choice.
Both companies had conflict. The difference is in how they dealt with that conflict. One managed the conflict to produce innovation and buy-in and to push the company mission forward. The other company did not manage its conflict and by default used it to perpetuate a silo mentality and constricted flow of ideas and innovation. Conflict is a normal and necessary part of being on a team but it is how we deal with it that makes all the difference. Avoiding conflict only drives it into places in your company that you cannot manage. You will ultimately have to deal with it either in terms of staff turn over or diminished output so you can manage conflict or avoid it but as the old adage goes - "you can pay me now, or you can pay me later".