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How to leverage senior-level conflict to drive growth and innovation

 “When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction.” — Peter Bromberg, organizational development consultant

Dysfunction in the executive suite can doom an organization. Many senior leaders, fearful of conflict among those closest to them, strive for artificial harmony—inadvertently squelching debate on issues critical to the company’s strategic growth and its capacity for innovation.

Experts in workplace dynamics advise leaders to reframe conflict not as a negative to be avoided but as an opportunity to stimulate innovation.

“Conflict is productive,” says Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”

Research links higher workplace engagement to the ability to speak one’s mind at work. In their study, “The State of Miscommunication,” sponsored by Fierce Conversations and Quantum Workplace, the authors found that, in surveying 1,300 people, those who said they always or almost always speak their minds report being more engaged at work than those who said they never or almost never did so.

Building skills

So, let’s say a leader knows that s/he should be embracing conflict and leveraging it productively. But s/he may lack the skills and the necessary emotional control.

Gerry Pierce, vice president of innovation at Smart Recipe Consulting LLC in Rochester and former senior vice president of human resources at Wegmans Food Markets Inc., emphasizes the value of facilitation skills for leaders whose role requires them to productively manage conflict and unlock the door to innovation.

Executive coaching and well-chosen training programs, Pierce says, can strengthen a of an organization, he notes, where the stakes are high and the egos are large, respectful listening is particularly crucial.

He describes a scenario during which conflict erupts in a meeting: An energized team member dominates the discussion with strong opinions, threatening to derail the meeting. To redirect the outspoken person’s energy, Pierce advises his clients to adapt the skill of mirroring, popularized by Stephen R. Covey and others. He suggests respectfully interrupting the dominant person and reflecting his words back to him: “If I understand you correctly, you believe we’re wasting time by pursuing x.” He may then ask others in the room to comment on the outspoken person’s points.

Once the outspoken person is heard, Pierce says, both he and the group tend to relax. By deftly managing the dominant speaker, the facilitator not only brings the conversation back onto a constructive track, but s/he also creates an opening for the quieter people around the table to offer opinions.

Alternatives to consensus building

“Consensus is good, but it’s too slow,” says Christophe Weber, CEO of Takeda Pharmaceutical, “and sometimes you end up with the lowest common denominator.” Weber is quoted in a Harvard Business Review article titled, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart,” summarizing research on CEO effectiveness.

“When tackling contentious issues, leaders who are good at engagement give everyone a voice but not a vote,” report researchers Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkotter Powell, Stephen Kincaid and Dina Wang.

They contend that “engaging for impact”—anticipating conflict and harnessing its transformative value— is crucial to CEO success.

The researchers cite other models of CEO success, such as Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“With any big decision,” they quote Bell as saying, “I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board. I identify the detractors and their concerns, and thenI think about how I can take the energy they might put into resistance and channel it into something positive.”

While Bell says she assures stakeholders that their input is important to the process, “(the leader has) to be clear that you’re making the call and you expect them on board.” A note of caution: Not all conflict is a rich resource just waiting to be tapped. Particularly in cultures where trust is low, certain conflict can be dangerous.Patrick Lencioni writes: “(In some teams,) arguments are often destructive because they are laced with politics, pride and competition, rather than humble pursuit of truth. When
people who don’t trust one another engage in passionate debate, they aren’t usually listening to the other person’s ideas and then reconsidering their point of view; they’re figuring out how to manipulate the conversation to get what they want.”

Apple founder Steve Jobs, too, understood the value of rooting out ulterior motives and potential sabotage: “It’s OK to spend a lot of time arguing about which route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there. But a lot of time gets wasted in such arguments if one person wants to go to San Francisco and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”

Conclusion

The best leaders are good listeners, according to Pierce, and know how to manage conflict with a process that builds trust and respect. It is important for everyone on the team to have an opportunity to be heard he says, because healthy conflict stimulates innovation.

© HR Works, Inc.

HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.