“You can’t be too nice. You have to allow people to challenge you for the good of the company,” says Tamara Littleton of global marketing firm the Social Element, as part of the BBC’s new series of CEO Secrets.
As she grew the business, Tamara was determined, as so many entrepreneurs are, to mould their ideal of a company culture: a friendly family of co-workers. Then she had to re-think. She’d pushed for the business to expand with an office in Australia and there’d only been supportive and encouraging voices around her. The project failed, and it was only then that directors admitted they’d always had serious doubts.
So now, at the Social Element, the CEO encourages ’healthy conflict’. No-one really wants a ‘prozac’ culture where everyone refuses to be the one person in the room with something negative to say, they just keep on smiling through the worries.
It’s easy enough to say, but how can conflict ever be healthy in practice? The problem is bigger than people holding back on useful opinions. Most organisations are in a position where their employees have a rigid work persona. They want to fulfil a role and impress their boss with their professionalism. That means the bottling up of more than opinions on business strategy. Grievances, concerns about everyday practices, personality clashes, unfulfilled ambitions and ideas — all the kinds of small troubles that together form a feeling of discontent.
In theory, ’good’ conflict unlocks a reserve of engagement, diversity, creativity and productivity in an organisation. Removing the niggles and giving people the confidence to be themselves, all of themselves, knowing they can trust their manager and colleagues to ‘get them’. In turn people feel more willing to offer more honest opinions, including criticisms where necessary; they can stand up and express new, challenging ideas.
But how many organisations could deal with an open season when it comes to criticism and conflict? They’re just not ready for it: for employees to see the ‘healthy conflict’ approach as their opportunity to settle scores, to use the idea as the defence for being aggressive and destructive, to have to deal with the mess when it all gets unhealthy. It’s not so much ‘healthy conflict’ that organisations need as challenge and open feedback.
In other words, the real question is whether staff — including leaders and managers — have the skills to deal with conflict in the right ways. On an everyday level there’s the need for better conversation skills. At CMP we help organisations develop an all-round ‘Conversational Integrity’, a workforce with the right mix of skills to always have grown-up conversations, no matter how sensitive or awkward the situation. A Conversational Integrity that is rooted in ‘situational awareness’, ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self awareness’.
HR also need to be thinking about the safety nets in place for when a culture of challenge and open feedback leads to unexpected problems. Access to mediation and a service staffed by trained mediators. Investigations that are carried out to the highest professional standards. They are the foundation to building employee trust in the transparency and fairness.
A healthy conversations culture isn’t something a CEO can initiate on a whim. There have to be the skills and capabilities in place that make it a living and workable reality.