We seem to be embroiled in ongoing conflict. Our political discourse has turned ugly, and management teams are struggling to find a collective voice on topics spanning from pandemic response to social injustice.
We've lost perspective on how to have healthy conflict. If we're really going to celebrate diversity and practice empathy, that requires finding common ground. Employers need proactive methods for defusing negative conflict and channeling that energy into a force for good.
We should be reminded that tension created by differing points of view can yield more creativity and greater innovation than being comforted by false agreement. As Mark Twain once said, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."
In one of the most impactful advertisements of all time, Apple celebrated the "crazy ones." As the ad suggested, "You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them, but the one thing you can't do is ignore them. They are the ones who will change the world."
The Beatles were famously comprised of strong personalities who regularly disagreed on creative direction. As reported in Rolling Stone, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had the most prolific collaboration in music history even though their motivations and styles were entirely different. Mourning the loss of his mother, Lennon's music was highly emotional. McCartney's was more upbeat. The song Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was created after a rant by Lennon about McCartney's "granny music sh*t."
Here are ways to embrace varying viewpoints within your organization:
We should value people who speak up and challenge the status quo. Failure to do so only results in a sea of sameness in the products and solutions we create. If your company operates like every other company, what makes you interesting and unique?
Promote healthy conflict, especially when contributors are presenting the voice of the customer. Dissent will often come from the people who are closest to customers and their pain points.
Reinforce your values
Values can't be statements on a wall; they must be engrained in hiring practices, employee onboarding and performance management. If we expect our teams to practice integrity and compassion, we need to hold employees accountable to behaviors.
Create a safe space
While we've all grown tired of Zoom happy hours, there are opportunities for employees to engage in more casual conversations where they can get to know their peers as people. Cultivating safety inspires trust.
Our best clients have methods for inciting, soliciting and rewarding innovation. Some invite employees who have provided ideas to special events. Others host hackathons and competitions. One client scheduled an innovation week where the management team coalesced around the best ideas, and gave gift cards for the ones they actually implemented. The quest for good ideas provides a venue to dismiss the ones you don't implement.
Back statements with evidence
Managers should back up opinions with data and a business case to support decisions, especially when putting the company's capital and reputation at risk. Cultures that promote this rigor in thinking will reduce random opinions unsupported by facts.
Practice active listening
If we want to improve our communication, we have to work harder at listening. This does not come easily to all employees, some of whom may need access to training on how to listen before they speak.
Face the truth
There are often disagreements among staff. Professional managers confront these issues and moderate in a proactive manner. By drawing out different points of view and stating them positively, everyone has a chance to be heard. Good managers help people frame comments in a way that isn't demeaning. One tactic is to invite parties to discuss things they agree about first, so that they can agree to disagree.
Respond to concerns
When employees raise concerns, formalize your response so they know their input is being considered. There is nothing more frustrating to employees than complaints that go unanswered.
Companies that celebrate wins foster a positive environment, so minor disagreements have less meaning.
In this politically charged environment and at a time when people are still suffering, the last thing employers want is for the work environment to create unneeded stress. We can leverage disparate thinking to create more meaningful solutions for our customers. Along the way, we can teach our employees to cope with conflict so we can build a better world.