In their new book, Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor, Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and Patricia Biederman, emphasize the importance of creating an open flow of communication in organizations. They urge leaders to seek information from a broad range of sources and share it widely. Indeed, robust and open discussion of issues leads to more effective decision-making.
Yet an insidious roadblock to open, effective communication exchange is a natural and inevitable part of organizational life - conflict.
Think about it – when you are in conflict with others, do you talk more or less with them? If you're like most people the answer is "less." And if you talk less with others, are you more or less likely to solve problems? Of course, the answer again is "less."
How can you keep conflict from diverting the flow of ideas and hampering discussion of differences? From an organizational or team standpoint, the key is talking about how you want to handle conflict before it occurs. Developing norms that encourage open discussion of issues caused by differences can help people keep talking when conflicts emerge. Candor and openness enables them to search for solutions instead of someone else to blame. Such norms need to deal with questions of trust and safety because when people feel that what they say will be used against them later, they will not fully engage. The norms should also encourage the use of constructive communication behaviors that can help lead to problem resolution.
Constructive behaviors include the ability to listen carefully to others with whom you are having conflict. Listening to someone whose view is opposed to yours can be difficult, especially if the conflict has angered you. This is essential, however, if you want to find ways to effectively resolve the conflict. Effective listening encourages the free flow of information and may be a leader's most effective tool to promoting open communication.
When conflict has caused communications to dry up, leaders can use a behavior called reaching out to get discussions moving again. Reaching out involves talking with the others involved in the conflict and encouraging them to try again to resolve their differences. If the leader is personally involved in the conflict, reaching out may including issuing an apology when appropriate or acknowledging at least partial responsibility for the difficulty. When appealing to those in conflict, the leader can clarify the business problems caused by the conflict and encourage further efforts to talk about how to best resolve them.
Effective leaders recognize just how crucial it is to foster open communication in their organizations. More importantly, they take steps to make sure conflict doesn't sabotage the free flow of information so necessary for creativity, good decision-making and implementation.