Watch this pithy video from Harvard Business Review, on the value of productive conflict in management decision-making.
Conflict is an essential feature of any management meeting or decision-making process. If your team does not engage in productive conflict, it will not make good decisions, and team members will not take accountability for results.
Management meetings are a microcosm of the full organizational leadership dynamic. Too often, they fall into an unhelpful “nice” vs. “nasty” dichotomy.
On the “nice” side, there is (excessive) emphasis on and reward for managers being very nice, even meek, at the meeting table (with the possible exception of the most senior managers). I call these Stepford Wives meetings. Voicing strong opinions is discouraged, and seen as threatening to the group dynamic. Decisions are driven by consensus. Some team members remain largely silent. They are disengaged, fearful, and/or political, waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before saying anything. . Because authentic opinions are not always welcome, some managers quietly stew as the group appears to move in a given direction with which they do not agree. It is only natural that a roomful of managers will not actually hold the same opinion on a proposed course of action, and should be cause for concern if multiple viewpoints are not expressed. In this world, if a “consensus” is achieved at all, the withholding managers may not fully support its actual implementation. The fight, such as it is, will take place behind the scenes. This is a less than ideal outcome.
Another danger of an over-emphasis on “nice” is paralysis. No consensus is ever achieved, and therefore no decision made, and no action taken. This is also clearly not an optimal outcome for a management group, whose job it necessarily is to make hard decisions about which initiatives to drive forward (and which to not), and how to do so.
On the “nasty” side, the management table is more reminiscent of the Lord of the Flies. The prevailing atmosphere is one of distrust, even paranoia. No ground rules are enunciated, and no common understanding exists of the purpose of the meeting or even the objectives of the organization. In this hostile Darwinian environment, it is the loudest and most aggressive voices who dominate. And “dominate” is the correct term: this is nothing but a competition, a savage pageant of egos, where the best ideas do not often win, and where the objectives of the organization are not key drivers of decision-making. Some team members are silent here too, mostly out of fear. Thoughtful voices are not sought out. While decisions may get taken at this table, they again will not be supported behind closed doors, as less aggressive managers who do not agree with the decision finally express their opinion by failing to fully support implementation.
In either unfortunate scenario, the decisions made, if any, will not be the best ones.
The answer, then, has to be be productive conflict, which in turn requires a foundation of trust.
Patrick Lencioni, in his leadership fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, cites “Fear of Conflict” as the second dysfunction of a management team, not surprisingly following the first dysfunction, “Absence of Trust”. As Lencioni wisely illustrates, management teams need to fearlessly engage in open debate, to arrive at the best possible decisions. But in order to do so, a foundation of trust must be built, one in which team members are willing to show vulnerability, and the cornerstone is laid by the CEO. Lencioni goes on to show how productive conflict instills commitment to the decision, which in turn sets the stage for accountability, which begets results. And aren’t results, after all, the raison d’etre of leadership?