Fostering Good Conversation: Difficulty, Conflict, Disagreement (Part 4 of 5)

An effective organization fosters critical and engaging conversation, as a way to cultivate wisdom, shared understanding and effective decision making.   However we also need to recognize the following:  If there is genuine conversation, there will inevitably be a diversity of opinion and perspective.   There might also be – well, there will be – disagreement, perhaps even on substantive matters.

Some, no doubt, try to avoid any kind of unpleasantness, and thus tip toe around and choose to ust not bring up those matters on which we might have a substantive disagreement.   We all want to get along and we all like the nice feeling that comes with unanimity and agreement and consensus and the sense that we are all on the same page.   And yet, what we know is that when we avoid all points of disagreement because we do not want to have an awkward or difficult conversation.   Many in leadership assume that is you are loyal to the organization and to the leadership you will agree and keep any disagreements to yourself, so that the leadership can present a common front of unity and shared commitment.   And without the possibility of disagreement we might not get to the heart of the matter; we might not make good decisions.

One of the indicators of a truly effective leaders is the capacity to hear from others who differ and who provide an alternate perspective.   They are secure enough in their leadership that they do not need their direct reports to be “yes people”:  they allow the other to have a mind of their own; their wisdom and perspective is valued.   Diversity is encouraged; we actually ask:  who sees this differently; who has an alternate view or perspective?

Now before we go further, we are making an assumption:  we are not about to part ways.   We are not saying that if we do not agree on this or that or other, I am going to leave.   There is no place for emotional blackmail:  “I get my way or it’s the highway”.   We do need to learn how to articulate our convictions and perhaps a minority opinion but still allow the organization to function.  We can say to the president or the senior pastor:  “in the end, it is your call, but here is my view of the matter.”   We can get outvoted on a committee, having expressed our views, and then affirm the right of the committee to make a decision with which we differ.   We know how to be a minority voice.   Rather, my point here is that diversity of perspective is a strength in an organization – as long as diversity of view does not keep us from acting, does not undermine due process, does not limit the capacity of leadership to make a decision that needs to be made.

Thus, two observations for those within organizations where diversity of perspective and disagreement on a difficult matter is accepted if not actually encouraged.

First, let’s agree to disagree and do so graciously.    We do not need to be offended or frustrated when someone disagrees with us.   We can recognize that there is diversity of view on any number of questions and we can still work together and do so very productively.   We can build this into the fabric of our working relationships:  the capacity for both humility and confidence . . . humility to accept that we may not have the ultimate word and thus can accept that another might see things differently, but then also the confidence to articulate our own views – not with arrogance, but with humility – and the confidence to act, to do what we need to do as leaders, even if there is a minority voice that differs with us.   We can respect the right of those who differ to express their views; and at one and the same time, we know that many if not most of the significant decisions we make will not have 100% support – that is, we can make those tough decisions that we need to make without waiting for unanimity.   We can work with both humility and confidence. 

And second, the more difficult or conflicted or challenging the debate or the discussion, we can and must do all we can to not only preserve the relationship but actually intentionally tend it.  When someone differs with you on a substantive matter, they will be watching to see if their expressed disagreement will alter your estimation of them or your ability or willingness to trust them going forward.   They will need to know “we’re good.”  We can do this by thanking them for expressing their opinion.   Acknowledge the disagreement and affirm that they are thoughtful and care about what it is that we differed on.   And, we can do this by going for coffee together and talking about anything but the matter on which we disagreed, but in so doing signal that the relationship matters to us more than the issue that might have divided us.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.