Can conflict within the executive team be a strategic advantage?

June 25, 2014 1:44 pm

Have you ever been on a leadership team with an executive that tried to ‘win at all costs’? How about a leadership team that avoids disagreements – always pretending consensus in the room but then doing whatever they want outside?

I have seen both and I know from experience that these teams are not productive, they are not innovative and it is certainly not pleasant to be a member of one of these teams.

In my experience working with executive teams, even the brightest leaders have to learn to ‘think together’.

I worked with one team that actually had both of these challenges but managed to turn it around. In this business, initially, there was no coordination much less collaboration between the different business units. Even the functional areas operated separately from the business, with business units frequently replicating services that were ostensibly centralised. The final straw for the managing director came when two separate businesses actually bid against each other for the same project – each partnering with different external businesses to propose a solution!

The ultimate goal was for the leadership team to learn how to not only work together, but to ‘think together’. However, before we could focus on that objective, we needed to build self-awareness including individual executives understanding of their impact in the team and in the broader business.

Executives were surprised to learn how they were perceived as individual leaders and more broadly as a leadership team. Surveys and interviews revealed that the executive team members were seen as not upholding the stated values of transparency, innovation or even integrity. Not only that, but also the middle managers and employees perceived the executives as out-of-touch with the day-to-day challenges of the business and more focused on growing their own territory rather than working for the good of the whole company.

Prior to hearing this difficult feedback, the leadership team participated in a workshop to learn about how the human brain responds to change and unexpected feedback. This includes the natural feelings of anger, defensiveness and sadness that are common in these situations. They learned several simple yet effective methods for handling their own emotion such as labelling feelings. This enabled each leader to understand his/her reactions and to better regulate his/her responses.

The result of this initial intervention was promising. Each leader took responsibility for how they were seen by others. Each executive also indicated that he/she was unhappy with how they were viewed by their teams. They all stated that as individuals they were committed to the company’s stated values and discussed why these values were personally relevant for them as individuals.

Our priority, at that point, was to shift the executives’ behaviour to better align with their values. This required both individual and group work. As a team, they learned about the role of the brain in acquiring new behaviours as well as what is involved in changing habits. Recognising the neurological bases of practice and feedback helped the leaders persist with their development efforts even when there were many other demands for their time and energy.

With this foundation in place, the team was able to begin building their thinking skills. In some ways, the high level of intellectual ability for team members was a barrier to high team performance. Leaders had to learn to fully explore each other’s ideas before finding flaws or immediately jumping to their own solutions. The concept of ‘auditioning ideas’ rather than presenting a fully packaged solution was new to the executives, as was inviting and incorporating critique from peers. Learning how common thinking errors and mental biases can negatively impact even the most intelligent leaders decision-making provided motivation for working in closer collaboration when dealing with complex challenges.

With practice, these executives were able to hold multiple perspectives in mind, analyse and at times combine conflicting perceptions. Ultimately they redefined the whole notion of conflict, and began to see it as a catalyst for stronger thinking. This enabled them to incorporate a wide diversity of thought, creating more robust business strategies and solutions to challenges.

Research shows us that our brains are highly social, however real world experience demonstrates that ‘thinking together’ is an acquired skill set.

Working on real business challenges within a context that encourages self-observation, feedback and practice provides a platform for developing thinking flexibility.

How does your leadership team handle conflict – is conflict just an opportunity for each executive to try to ‘win’ or do they see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs? There is a better way.

• Try auditioning ideas rather than insisting upon acceptance of a pre-packaged solution
• Proactively ask for feedback
• Solicit contrary perspectives
• Look for opportunities to combine diverse views.

Conflict is the product of diversity of thought and is a huge advantage when used as a catalyst for thinking together effectively. With practice it is possible for an executive team to use conflict as a strategic advantage.

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