Consider a company with two business units that provide the same products and services to customers in adjoining geographic territories. There are two business unit leaders in the company: one a successful veteran of the enterprise and one a recent hire with new ideas. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realize that this set up can – and did – engender conflict.
We worked with these leaders to help them make the move from unhealthy to healthy conflict. Unhealthy conflict is characterized by anger and personal attacks. There was a lot of that initially as the two leaders butted heads on strategy, approach, products, and execution. What they needed to learn was how to engage in healthy conflict:
Healthy conflict is when people can arm wrestle and disagree and discuss with vigor business challenges and opportunities, but they don’t make it personal. They are focused on arriving at decisions that are best for the business and therefore do not resort to personal attacks or disparaging comments.
Over the course of about a year, it was rewarding to watch these two business unit leaders become comfortable with healthy conflict. They came to the place where they could have intense conversations about things that were or were not working effectively, about adjusting the product mix, and so on, often presenting very diverse perspectives and rationales, all without a hint of personal rancor.
The result has benefited the business across the board. The newer executive has been able to turn around a struggling geographic territory to become a major revenue generator. The veteran continues his track record of success and profit. The two leaders now constantly push each other to consider new ideas and share information about what is happening in their territories. They have a good-natured way of challenging each other to higher levels of performance.
This is the power of healthy conflict. It is not something to be avoided – it is to be embraced with open arms because healthy conflict enables businesses to realize their greatest potential. If leaders avoid disagreements and refuse to engage in vigorous dialogue about difficult challenges, the chances are good that they are missing out on opportunities to accelerate business growth.
To move from unhealthy to healthy conflict, put the following steps into practice:
- Make the decision to set aside your own agenda. This is a personal decision that each leader has to make. You need to make up your mind that you are willing to do what is best for the business, even if it isn’t optimal for you personally.
- Focus on the facts of the topic under discussion. Conversations are not productive unless they are based on facts – not feelings or assumptions or opinions. Ask yourself: what do we really know about this matter? What have we observed? Are there metrics we can look at? What data will inform our talk? If you discover that you don’t have a lot of solid facts at hand, stop the conversation and go out and get more data. You can’t engage in a fact-based dialogue without facts.
- Bring in an outside perspective. Because healthy conflict involves vigorous discussion – discussion which can quickly devolve into unhealthy conflict – it can be helpful to bring in a third party who is a little more distant from the issue. This person can provide their own observations and reflections, ask pertinent questions, and keep the conversation on a healthy track.
- Have the integrity to support the best decision. If the facts and your discussion lead to a conclusion and decision you didn’t expect to make (that is, one that differs from what you believed to be the right direction when you entered into the conversation), be intellectually honest enough to admit it, affirm it, and support it. Doing so will be best for the business and will earn you the respect of everyone involved.
Ultimately, healthy conflict creates an environment of cooperation, honesty, integrity, and respect that enhances trust – making it easier the next time (and there will definitely be a next time) you engage in healthy conflict.
Leadership Takeaway for Today:
Whenever there are differing opinions about a business matter, keep one thing top of mind: “This isn’t about me. What’s the right decision for the business?”