A tale of two organizations: Acme's president would walk in promptly at 10 a.m. each Tuesday to start the weekly staff meeting. He would take his seat at the head of the table, hand out the agenda, review the past week and ask the management group what was coming up in the week ahead. He would explain what should be done relative to both major and minor issues. These meetings were largely tension free and there were no arguments or disputes. At the end of the meeting, having completed the agenda, the pesident would give some words of encouragement and adjourn. All in all, things went pretty smoothly.
The executive director of Superior would also prepare an agenda and begin meetings promptly. But that is where the similarities end. The management team sat pretty much where they wanted, and the executive director would typically grab the first convenient seat. In one session, visitors from a public agency that was working with Superior were shocked and distressed to find one of the managers sitting at the head of the table. But that was just the beginning. These meetings, while they stuck to the agenda, were often marked by arguments, some with shouting.
In the meeting that the public agency group attended, they were further stunned when one of Superior's managers told the executive director, "You're just wrong about this," to which the executive director responded, "Oh really, please enlighten me." The visitors got nervous at this point, but the other members of the management team just laughed. The manager then described an approach to the issue at hand that was quite different from what the executive director had proposed. In the end, the executive director summarized a decision that was not what she had originally presented, but also not what several members of the management team had been looking for. She asked her favorite question: Do we have a commitment? Everyone said yes and they all left, mostly laughing about the morning's events, especially the reaction of their visitors.
One could ask which meeting you would rather be in, but that is a column for another time.
Acme is an organization without visible conflict. The president's view is that the members of the management group – hardly a team – are his helpers, and that they are there to execute his decisions. The group has internalized this message, and conflict at the executive level is virtually unheard of. The results are the following: because the president can't know everything and there is little discussion of problems, there are lots of unpleasant surprises at Acme. The response to these surprises is to blame someone, driving any airing of different views or bad news even further underground and pretty much precluding organizational learning.
At Acme, there is little focus on issues or problem solving. The overwhelming focus is on people, most notably their deficiencies. Also because there is so little genuine discussion, people are uncertain of exactly what they are supposed to do unless the president makes it crystal clear. Typically he does not. Nor is it always clear that what he is asking is even doable, the result being that execution is Acme's Achilles heel. Things simply don't get done, and, even worse, people increasingly don't expect them to get done. Lots of things are – or seem to be – unclear, and the organization is permeated by an air of mistrust. Finally, Acme is unable to hold on to talented people, and increasingly it is unable to attract them as its bad-place-to-work reputation spreads.
Switch to Superior. What sometimes appears to be a free-for-all is in fact a structured decision-making process that is built on two assumptions: conflict is a healthy and essential part of successful organization life, and all wisdom cannot reside in the brain of one person. What some of the more acute visitors to Superior also noted was that these conflicts were always about some issue rather than about a person, and they always focused on what Superior should do in the immediate future rather than on what happened in the past. Superior managers spent very little time figuring out who was to blame when something went wrong.
In contrast to Acme, Superior's decisions got implemented, even when not everyone agreed with them. Every member of the management team knew that they had been heard, and that if they had suggested a better idea – that is, better for the whole organization – it would have been accepted. They also understood that what the executive director was looking for was commitment and not consensus. Her job was to decide, not to round up everyone's vote.
Because of its conflict and trust-based decision-making model, Superior had reduced surprises to an absolute minimum. And because trust included an understanding that people make mistakes, problems were quickly identified and everyone focused on finding a best solution rather than on who screwed up. At Superior, people were always imagining different and better futures for the organization, and what they found really inspiring was knowing that they would always have a platform from which to present and argue for this better future.
In general, most of us try to avoid conflict and typically don't differentiate between healthy and necessary conflict and that which is unhealthy and damaging to the organization. Conflict is uncomfortable, and even in organizations such as Superior, people – at any level – don't like being told that they are wrong or seemingly on the losing side of an argument.
So how should a manager begin to think about conflict in the work group? The starting point is simply to reject the goal of getting rid of or avoiding conflict. As we have seen, conflict is essential to organizational success and, particularly, to finding the best solutions and avoiding big mistakes. Once the importance of conflict is accepted, the negative norms of avoidance, suppression, dominance and pseudo-geniality begin to go away on their own.
The second key is to then use conflict and the open airing of differences to find what have come to be known as integrated solutions. Conflict should not lead to compromises and splitting the difference; the best solution is not always somewhere in the middle. One role of the manager and decision-maker is to actively listen to all views and not remain locked into position, to try to identify the best case. The goal of these discussions is neither to reassert managerial authority nor to make everyone happy. When readers wrote the journalist H. L. Mencken to tell him that he was all wrong about something, Mencken would consider their arguments and often respond, "You may be right." That kind of open-mindedness serves managers well in getting to the best solutions and also in building trust and buy-in from those who have to execute decisions.
Here are a few useful checklist items for measuring whether healthy conflict is taking place and how to foster it:
— As always, the starting point is to correctly define whatever the issue is. It is useful to regularly remind ourselves of Descartes' famous dictum, "The most corrupting lies are problems misstated." It's generally not useful to solve the wrong problem. Once we understand the issue, it's worth asking what happens because of this problem, what outcome we are seeking, what our choices are, and, finally, what the best choice is. From the standpoint of using conflict, these questions keep us focused on the issue and its resolution and not on people and blame or blame avoidance.
— Related to the previous point, managers can apply two observable litmus tests to gauge the way in which differences are being handled. First, are we focused on finding a solution or on fixing blame? If the latter, the discussion will inevitably have a "who hit little Johnny first?" quality. In the end, who cares? And you are nowhere nearer a resolution. Closely related to the problem-solving versus blame question is the temporal question; if the discussion is about blame,
it is almost invariably anchored in the past, i.e., about who did what when. These discussions lead nowhere. If it is about solving the problem, it focuses on the immediate future. If it is focused on the distant future, it is generally a sign that the group is avoiding the issue and dealing in generalities that also lead nowhere.
— Healthy conflict is built on trust, and trust is to a large degree built on clarity and transparency. As in most things, clarity is good and ambiguity is bad. Ambiguity and opacity create the gray areas in which unhealthy conflict, misunderstandings and the personalization of differences occur. Remember Acme at the beginning of our story. Acme was a virtual hotbed of ambiguity, with everyone having their own version of reality, versions that regularly bumped into one another with predictably bad effects.
— There should be simple and clear ground rules. Some things are simply unacceptable. These include personal attacks of any kind, labeling and stereotyping, distorting the positions of others and forming cliques and mini power blocs. It's worth making these rules explicit, but what is really interesting is how infrequently they need to be invoked.
Finally, when Rodney King asked "Can't we all just get along?" he probably didn't realize two things. First, that he was asking one of the simplest and most important questions of our time, and, second, that the answer was yes but that it involved far more than people being "nice" and avoiding differences. In fact, effectively "getting along" at almost any level of society – and certainly at the organizational level – requires that we openly deal with those differences. That means getting out of our comfort zones on a continuing basis so that doing so becomes normal. It is one of the most important keys to healthy organizational life.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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