Courage & Conflict

It is eighteen months down the turnaround road and we are hitting some walls. A recent employee poll pointed to 'inefficient processes' as the primary barrier to employees' success. But few have the courage to step forward and say out loud, "This is an inefficient process!" We're really worried about what would happen if we did.

Let's talk about how we talk about conflict, which is the dark side of collaboration, of course. Sometimes we get to agree to disagree - but that's really a luxury, isn't it? Most of the time, when two people disagree about something important, guess what? Someone's gonna get their way, and the other one isn't. Employee, sibling, parent, manager, friend -- Everyone has experienced the pain of I'm right and you're wrong and someone pays and someone gets paid. Someone walks away feeling burned, but everyone lives on.

It's the great wheel of life: sometimes you're up and sometimes you're down, but it always moves forward.

Why then is it so hard for us to find useful ways to disagree with each other? In his first big corporate meeting, our CEO directed us to "Consult with all the qualified smart people, get their opinions, make the decision, and then move on." Oh, what a lovely vision! Let's talk about the habits we need to break to get to that point.

Saints on the Payroll

First, no one is getting paid to be perfect and universally loved. We get paid to solve problems. Sometimes we have a good day and the problem gets solved in a tidy way. Sometimes, it gets messy. Now, 'messy' is a subjective quality. For many of our employees, the mere possibility of conflict or controversy is enough for them to break a sweat. No actual communication needs to take place to create the intolerable worry. They analyze their audience: "They'll hate this. They'll disagree. They'll create barriers. Those unreasonable villains, they will sabotage all our good work."

Hmm. I haven't met anyone whose job it is to prevent me from being successful. Perhaps it's time to worry about this a little less. Hey, instead of worrying about out positioning, I say: Let's get back to work.

Any psychologist can tell you that the best way to get used to the discomfort of conflict is to expose yourself to more of it. Don't fear it, go to it - talk about it. If you can, make a joke about it. Think of it as useful tension, a signpost that something needs to be resolved. We need to get less tender about conflict in order to get the "qualified smart people" into the room.

Finding the Smart People

And here we are, back at collaboration. Schedule a meeting as soon as you know it's inevitable, and make sure you invite all the people who have a qualified opinion, or whose work you will be depending on to sew up the solution, so they understand the whole context of the decision. Make the meeting work for all involved - even if you disagree with their point of view. Prepare an agenda and send out any pertinent background material.

Go ahead and embarrass any participants who haven't read the background material. They won't neglect to read it next time.

You see, all that pre-made communications advice about "always have an agenda," is just so much blah, blah, blah, unless you want the meeting to get to a real destination. If you do, the agenda, the pre-work, all these tricks and devices, will help keep your meeting participants on track. But the key ingredient is your personal commitment to run the meeting so you really do get all the smart points of view on your problem.

If you do, you'll start the meeting on time, you'll interrupt the boring anecdote, you'll quash the nay-sayer, you'll do what it takes to get to the decision you need.

Find the smart people, get them to talk, make sure they all agree that you get to make this decision, and then thank them for their input.

I've participated in many meetings where all my smart participants agreed absolutely on the right thing to do and then asserted that such a result would never come about.

Agreement from all qualified stakeholders is critical to produce needed change. We need to take more confidence from these agreements - include the stakeholders in next-stage communications so they can add their endorsements - in public. It's time we all had as much courage in public as we do among ourselves in the wind-down of our meetings with other smart people.

The Killing Fields

With agreement all that is left to do is to make the decision. Well, it's yours to make, isn't it? The word "decide" comes from a Latin root that means, "to kill the alternatives." I see many decisions made here that are rendered null and void by a small slip: the communicator forgets to be clear about the doors that this decision closes. A decision is something that happens when you are presented with alternatives: in choosing one, you are eliminating the others.

The actual point of any communication is the slaying of the alternatives. If, on the company's behalf, you've decided on a vendor for McGuffins, it's important to be clear that no other vendor may be used. Any variance to this undermines your decision. I think we suffered through two years of this nonsense around cell phone contracts, for instance. But you could pick ten examples of the same from your own experience.

Chosen Battles

A job that puts the hard issues into cold storage gets dull pretty fast. It's frustrating, because the hard issues, the ones that generate conflict, also point the direction for the future. We're just marking time if we can't find ways to raise the questions that generate discussion, disagreement, and yes, conflict. I look at the charge before us in the next eighteen months, and I see so many tough issues that need to be resolved right away.

Here's my suggestion: don't worry about the conflict generated in the discussion. That's just noise. Dive in. Make a difference. Manage change. We will all be better for it.

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