Nice Managers Embrace Conflict, Too
Most people want to be liked: It’s one of the fundamental tenets of human behavior. Because of that motivation, many of us have an unconscious desire to avoid conflict. We prefer to “get along,” “not make waves,” and “act as a team player.” We all want to be known as a great person to work with.
The only problem with this mindset is that creative ideas and better ways of getting things done often stem from constructive conflict. Organizations need it to advance. And even in the day-to-day, workplace conflict is still inevitable because organizations are full of bright, ambitious people with different points of view, controversial ideas, and disparate values. There’s no way that we can get along with everyone all the time.
Finding the right balance between the need to deal with conflict and the instinct to avoid it is one of the toughest challenges that most managers face. While most realize that allowing unbridled conflict can create a toxic atmosphere with low morale and high turnover, they often miss the fact that not enough conflict can be just as damaging. When people hesitate to speak up about poor practices or processes that don’t make sense, it creates a significant amount of unnecessary complexity and fosters a passive acceptance of the status quo. That’s why “stop being so nice” is one of the seven strategies for organizational simplification that we highlighted in a previous post.
Of course, overcoming the natural and often unconscious tendency to damp down conflict is tough to do – but if you’re willing to try, these four best practices can help:
Quote The Godfather. In order to foster more constructive conflict and feedback, remind your team and your colleagues about Don Corleone’s admonition that “it’s not personal, it’s business.” Doing this will reinforce the notion that we can disagree about ideas and strategies, but still respect and like each other — something that is often forgotten in the heat of battle.
With this principle in mind, encourage team members to ask probing questions and challenge assumptions. Eventually asking, “Have you thought about this?” should feel like a productive conversation, rather than a personal attack.
Create challenge events. Rather than leave it to chance, schedule time with your team to question norms and change the way things are done. Make it clear to them that processes are expected to evolve over time (even the ones you created) and that it’s OK to push back on them. Doing this will create a “safe space” where they can assess whether routine tasks are worth the effort, and modify them if necessary. It also allows people who might hesitate to raise issues by themselves feel more comfortable doing so in a group.
Recognize employees who question the status quo. When employees take the risk of creating a productive disruption, give them positive reinforcement. If someone pushes back or raises an uncomfortable question in a meeting, back them up rather than shut them down. If possible, use it as a teachable moment to encourage others to do the same.
Set ground rules for conflict. Since everyone struggles with conflict to some degree, develop a few standards for how your team can manage it constructively. For example in one company’s review sessions, participants need to begin with at least two positive comments before anyone is allowed to throw in a criticism. Although it feels a little awkward at times, this practice forces everyone to take a more balanced view of other people’s work, which reduces the tension and allows for more productive discussions.
In another firm, every meeting ends with five minutes of what’s called a “plus/delta” critique of the meeting – with quick comments about what was good about it and what should be changed the next time. Again, this more structured practice makes it easy and acceptable to openly and constructively criticize.
In the short-term, it’s almost always easier to avoid conflict and come across as being a “nice” manager. But more often than not, being a little less nice might be the best thing for your people, your organization, and you.