Margaret Thatcher, the British Iron Lady, once famously said “Consensus is the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects, the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”
Sounds familiar? It does to me. Throughout my career, most leadership teams I participated in tried to avoid conflict and would come to conclusions that everybody could agree with, even if it wasn’t the right solution for the organization. They didn’t have the ability to deal with the discomfort that comes from a good fight.
I don’t mean fights in which individuals are all about pitching personal interests or those fights that revolve around clashing personalities or settling long-standing grudges. No, I am talking about those fights in which people vehemently disagree about ideas, concepts and the issues that are important to the organization.
The willingness to disagree, to make yourself vulnerable and admitting that you don’t have the right answers, is a hallmark for a healthy team. A strong team comes from trusting each other and giving individuals space to be wrong. And when there is trust, people are willing to pursue the right answers even if it doesn’t fit their personal opinion.
Increasing conflict is of course not something that happens automatically nor does it happen by someone just saying that they want more constructive conflict. As in all changes, the ‘message from the top’ and installing a process that supports the change is crucial. I love the example of a senior leader who in order to encourage more conflict in his team implemented two key rules. The first rule was to that he would interpret silence as disagreement, so if people were not contributing a decision could not be made. And the second rule he introduced was that at the end of each meeting he asked each member for a formal commitment to the decision taken.
This of course is very similar to the old team development steps of: forming, storming, norming, performing. You can’t get high performing teams if you haven’t gone through this process and there is no short cut in which you can skip a step. That is why I take business teams on Outbreak Leadership Journeys. The idea is to take people out of their comfort zone, not tell them what they will be doing, make them do things they have never done before and after a few days most people are tired and have short fuses. This is when you can get conflict out and only then can you move on and start building a team that is committed to the organization, each other and themselves.
I am off to Sri Lanka for another Leadership Outbreak tomorrow. Let the storm begin!
– Paul Keijzer