In the workplace, it is a common notion that conflict is to be avoided. However, when done in a constructive manner, challenging co-workers' ideas can lead to immense innovation and growth for an organization.
Tony Libardi, president and chief operating officer of Marco's Franchising, which operates the international pizza chain Marco's Pizza, recognizes that each member of the corporation plays a pivotal role in the company's overarching success.
What this means is that he puts himself in the precarious position of letting his ideas be challenged by anybody in the organization. That goes for anyone else, too--it's a cultural expectation in which working through conflict is the pathway to grow faster.
"When I am first introduced to leaders, I try to start by giving and granting permission to push back. I am a passionate person who has strong opinions, but it doesn't mean that I'm right," Libardi shared with me.
"If you need to come back a second, third, and fourth time for me to gain understanding and agreement, I welcome this. I always say that I don't have to be right in the debate, but I have to be right in the decision. And we are both accountable for those decisions," says Libardi.
He embraces the concept of a "productive dispute," which he describes as letting people say what needs to be said, with respect and a positive tone in real time, and listening for understanding when others are providing feedback. "All this with an eye on driving performance and achieving [key] results. Whatever you say at the water cooler, you can say in the room," explains Libardi.
Protecting healthy conflict from personal agendas
Libardi credits this stance of open debate in helping grow Marco's franchise to nearly 1,000 locations, but self-serving egos need not apply.
I asked him how he guards his culture of radical transparency against an idea coming from the left field of a personal agenda. "We do this through accountability. We call actions that support personal agendas 'below the line' activities -- like covering your tail, for example. Instead, we encourage 'above the line' actions: See it, own it, solve it, and do it," explains Libardi.
To ensure accountability, Libardi and his team demand that respectful conflict and debate live in the reality of data and facts to support any recommendations. For example, he says, "We refrain from 'I like that idea, but ... " criticism, and he makes sure that points of debate "are aligned to our target audience--our customers and guests."
More important, he says, the first step is to put people first and listen for understanding versus seeking a solution, which should be the last step in a conflict. Since restaurant people are entrepreneurs and natural problem solvers, he can't emphasize enough that, before coming up with a solution (the very last step), you have to first "seek to understand, seek to align, and then work together to solve the problem."
Three reasons why leaders should encourage more conflict
While a conflict strategy may look different for any organization, Libardi holds "conflict sessions" to welcome many differing opinions around a tough issue, like underperforming stores. He says without these conflict sessions in place to hear others' points of view, "we might have missed something awesome."
If you're still skeptical of Libardi's counterintuitive leadership strategy, there are plenty of reasons why you should reconsider. He offers up three of them:
1. It's better to make the right decision than be right.
As a leader, Libardi stresses the importance of laying aside your ego and recognizing that the good of the organization trumps personal gain. He says, "I always invite teammates to challenge any ideas I have outlined for our company's growth, initiatives, etc. Many times, they will bring forward ideas I had not thought of, which makes more sense in aligning with our goals."
2. Synergy brings innovation.
When people are encouraged to work together to question ideas set in front of them, many times more creative and out-of-the-box insights arise. This helps to push the business forward as a forward thinker and thought leader in the space.
3. You build relationships and increase trust.
Opening up the room for discussion allows team members to get to know one another on a deeper level. Regardless of position or title, you share opinions and thoughts and can build on strengths that are unearthed. Libardi says, "As someone who is in a higher position, saying hello and asking my counterparts' opinions helps me get to know those who might not otherwise approach me. This helps to build trust amongst employees and bolsters employee retention."