Harnessing Conflict To Create An Ideal Company Culture
Conflict and debate are subsets of communication that we often find extremely difficult, and yet healthy debate is often the key to a thriving and innovative business. Conflict and debate are especially useful when brainstorming or problem-solving. Though leaders may find it emotionally or mentally challenging to navigate differing points of view, diversity of thought provides the ingredients for creating the ideal company culture.
Understanding power dynamics in a company hierarchy is the first step. Leaders must ask themselves if employees are openly encouraged to speak their minds or if are they worried about a public power struggle in which they might lose face. Are there cultural differences and perspectives that stop team members from expressing themselves to authority figures? Are team members clearly told where and how they can provide feedback to directors and upper management?
Assess cultural differences. Some team members may believe that compliance is preferable to participation in decision-making or problem-solving conversations.
Marie is a senior executive at an HR firm, and she realized that when she led meetings, some of the newer team members stayed quiet because they were afraid to speak up in front of the boss. She now asks junior executives to lead meetings so that her voice and opinion do not override the conversation or squash potential participation from those with differing ideas. By taking a step back and listening more, she also inherently demonstrates her willingness to absorb conflicting points of view.
While conflict and debate can be healthy for a thriving company culture, leaders can only harness them for good using clearly communicated guidelines. In the article “Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall,” McKinsey & Company advises leaders to “consider questions relating to team structure and rules of engagement: What does success look like when it comes to contributory dissent? What topics and behaviors are out of bounds? Who will lead the discussion, and how will comments be captured? Who has the final say on decisions, or which decisions can be delegated, and to whom?”
If done correctly, drama and conflict can revitalize your meetings and company culture. However, meetings are not always the best forum for communicating dissent or conflicting opinions.
My client Philip came from a company in which speaking out against a leader’s point of view was strongly discouraged. When he transitioned into a leadership role at a new company, he found himself in a culture where a diversity of opinions was welcomed and encouraged. As he was new to the idea of team brainstorming, public dissent in meetings seemed disrespectful to him because he viewed it as a condemnation of his leadership style. However, he also quickly recognized the benefits of brainstorming and healthy debate, so he knew that he needed to put aside his discomfort with dissent and work on adapting to this new style of leadership.
Philip decided to take small steps by establishing times and places in which team members could talk about their thoughts on initiatives. At the beginning of each meeting, he explains that he wants to hear feedback on certain topics and encourages participants to take time after the meeting to digest the information they have been provided. Once they have time to form thoughtful responses, they are welcome to come to him for a one-on-one conversation or a small, informal group chat.
The ideal work environment encourages open communication and provides psychological safety for team members to share their views and opinions in a respectful way. Cultivating this type of workplace takes time, practice and training. Effective communication is a skill that not all employees are taught, especially when it comes to expressing dissent or differing points of view.
Occasional training, coaching sessions and/or other materials may be necessary to teach team members how to communicate respectfully. Courses can walk through theoretical conversations and provide practical tips on how to thoughtfully explain one’s point of view without offense or personally attacking those who see things differently. Coaching sessions could also be a valuable resource so that teammates can have a person available to help them evaluate real-life scenarios that they may encounter. Often business coaching can include role-play in those scenarios that allow people to practice their new skills.
Successful leaders acknowledge and appreciate a diversity of voices—even the dissenters—in their company culture. Although those who speak out against a course of action in business may not ultimately sway the final decision, they can provide valuable insight and information for creating future decisions and contribute to forging the direction of the company.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes