When you hear that, you think about how noble it is. But peace can be a double edged blade. A lack of conflict can be more dangerous than the opposite.
But if you’re at the C Suite level, you know all about conflict. In fact, you probably wish there was a lack of it. After all, you face competition from the market, corporate politics from within and pressure from the board and/or investors.
When I was part of a small community board, disagreements and passive aggressive behavior was everywhere. Some members had outside interests at stake and others lost motivation from seeing arguments all day and no solutions. Things were bad, to say the least.
How did the situation go from there to one where each board member felt empowered to voice their opinions, were highly empathetic of their colleagues’ perspectives and solved issue after issue quickly?
Trusting in Conflict
The best teams in the world move through their work like clockwork, even when meetings may seem like utter chaos to the outside observer. There may be a lot of bickering and heated debates from all around the conference table, yet results keep happening. Why is that?
These teams, fostered by their leaders, all do the same thing. They trust in each other. Unlike what most people believe, trust and conflict are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, they do their best work side by side.
Trust starts with a shared purpose. Sometimes you may find it difficult to believe that some of the people around you actually want the same thing as you. Yet this is actually the case so many times.
The reason conflict exists is because while you may have the same end desire, you disagree on the method of achieving it. This is natural, given everyone’s respective experiences and backgrounds.
But this difference is projected onto the people behind the methods. People start to take the act of disagreement as a personal offense, A lack of trust is then created.
When leaders remind their direct reports that everyone is going after the same goal, the team starts to appreciate what others have to offer. In fact, if you are sure that everyone around you wants the same result as you, how interested would you be in their ideas on achieving that thing, even if it’s different from how you would do it?
The best teams trust each other. This allows them to argue with all their might and then agree with the final decision. They know everything is being done for a singular purpose and that everyone wants the same thing.
How do the best leaders create this type of culture?
Be Vulnerable, Be Safe
A serious misconception with many leaders is the image that leaders must always seem strong. Instead, having this image in mind is what leads so many to fail in leadership positions. The fact that you are in charge now does not change who you are, however much you try to pretend to be a leader that you’re not.
An alternative approach is to work in some vulnerability into your leadership. This does not mean spilling your guts on your deepest darkest secrets at the next meeting. No, the goal is to be authentic and real with your team.
If times are hard, how likely is it that your team doesn’t already know that? Would they appreciate you trying to ignore that and make everything seem great? Or would they appreciate if you sat down and gave them some real talk about what the state of the organization is?
Leaders are given responsibility. When the time comes to take it, don’t shirk from doing so. Because you would otherwise lose the trust of your team. Sure it may not feel great to take the blame for a bad hit. But no one will think less of you for acknowledging that and requesting your team to help you turn things around.
What does this do for you and your direct reports?
Once they see that you are comfortable with being real, they will start to open up as well. They will feel that they’re in a safe enough environment to speak their thoughts. They realize that they will not be attacked for their honest input.
What this creates is a high level of engagement. To maintain this is your job. There will be times when tensions run high and you have to remind everyone what the purpose of everything is.
All change starts from you. Here’s another one you can make to benefit your team.
People Love Stories, Especially Their Own
Some conflicts come from a place of true differences of opinion. But most come from misunderstandings. In hindsight, you wonder how those even happen. Here’s how.
People tell themselves stories about life as they see it.
Within each person’s mind is a swirling cauldron of their life experiences, the history of how they were raised and the beliefs they were taught. When one event happens, any two people will experience it differently in their respective perspective, simply because they have lived different lives.
In other words, each person interprets people and events differently based on who he or she is.
They do this by telling themselves stories. As a leader, you either respect this or risk destroying what safety you created through being vulnerable.
Imagine the following scenario: you are getting pressure from the top to cut down on costs. You project that pressure onto your direct reports. One day, someone speaks up and asks you why you are spending so much on office furniture. You are being called out. What are you going to do?
In a situation that feels like you got caught red-handed, your default response may be to blow up on the person who spoke up. Or you could acknowledge how he could have seen it that way and choose to reconcile your perspectives.
People tell you to never assume but how often do you track your awareness of this? Every single moment, your mind is assuming things based on previous experiences.
The best way to counter this is to create a system where you and those who follow you are constantly re-framing their thought patterns. What if he was saying this? What else could she have meant here? How can we see this another way?
Once you get used to getting out of your own head, a great deal of opportunities will start to present themselves to you. Because that is what conflict does.
Conflict is what creates progress. But only if teams follow the natural order of what this article has described. Unfortunately, sometimes people default to an alternative form of conflict: politics.
This bane of a strong work culture thrives when people pretend like they’re cooperating but are actually pursuing their own agenda. They are far more interested in themselves than the company. They do not feel safe and so they are not transparent.
This is what I stamped out in my community board.
I made it very well known that I valued, even demanded, everyone’s input. The leaders focused on collaboratively creating a shared purpose as a reminder for what we were all there to do, regardless of how different our opinions were. We also made it routine to re-frame our thought patterns about recurring problems.
By the end of our terms, each member of the board became leaders in their own right. They argued over issues and created solutions on their own in the same meeting. The president and I actually had nothing to do by the end. Performance wise, this team operated the best out of all of its predecessors.
With this, you now have an idea of what conflict can do, if used properly. What can you do today to create healthy conflict?