“In every difficult situation is potential value. Believe this, then begin looking for it.” -Norman Vincent Peale
In today’s society, I believe that leaders have become adverse to adversity, conflict and failure. Leaders grasp every opportunity to avoid it, bury it, push it under the carpet. So we let issues simmer, overflow and seep out and into the organization, rather than face them head on. We avoid it when conflict rears its ugly head in our meetings, congratulating ourselves for avoiding that one as we creep back to our office. Feeling good that we squashed any conflict before it took control of and ruined our meeting. Happy that our leadership kept everything on track and running smoothly. The one problem…that same conflict has already raised its ugly head in the parking lot. And in all actuality, avoidance has allowed it to grow meaner and uglier. You might even be able to put your head to the ground and hear it growling in the staff parking lot.
This is not to say that a leader’s avoidance of conflict, adversity and/or any form of failure should fall squarely on their shoulders. We have created the environment for avoidance behaviors in our organizations. On one side we love to roll out cliches like…you learn your greatest lessons out of conflict and adversity as a leader…and then we criticize their leadership for those very same situations. We love to say that…failure teaches us great lessons and resiliency…and never allow people to rebound from their struggles. There is very often no second chances for failure.
We put all of the right leadership quotes on the walls of our organizations…Leadership is forged in the fires of adversity…Leadership resiliency is shown during the most difficult of times….Adversity is a great determiner of leadership strength…Great leaders are at their best when the chips are down.
Until the chips are really down…and then those leaders are looking around trying to figure out where everyone went. The problem is that we like to spout cliches in the best of times. We don’t see them rolled out as often during the difficult times.
So, even though the best leadership thinkers acknowledge that we learn our greatest lessons from the depths of adversity and failure…our ‘real’ organizational environments push our leaders towards a tendency to avoid these situations and conflict at all costs. It is hard to be resilient when failure is not so much a learning experience as something that you don’t get a chance to rebound from. And when that message is sent, in any organization, people learn to become adverse to adversity. Why engage in conflict and face problems head on? Much better for professional longevity to avoid rocking the boat. Serves the career better to keep the ship moving along smoothly. And that is often an expectation that rolls down from the ‘higher-ups‘. A smooth running ship.
So it is very difficult to blame leaders for being adverse to conflict in their organization…
Unfortunately in these situations, leaders becomes less about leading and more about position. Innovation slowly creeps out of the equation. Maintaining soon overwhelms any proposition of innovating. And the approach of those serving in the organization becomes more about ‘just tell me what you want me to do‘ than what Daniel Pink describes in Drive as ‘motivation, autonomy and mastery‘. It is no longer needed and/or required. And we wonder why engagement of those in our organizations is slipping away at astronomical rates.
And if leaders are going to reengage the disengaged, we can no longer approach our leadership being adverse to adversity. We can no longer cancel the conflict in our organizations. We actually have to take an upside-down approach to leadership. We actually have to search it out. We have to make conflict a part of our leadership toolbox, if we really want to engage the disengaged. However, with the disclaimer that we engage around the right ‘kind’ of conflict. Conflict that brings out the best in our people and the best in ideas and answers to our difficult problems.
And that takes leadership…strong leadership. And it requires two vital requirements. First, all actions must be based in and on a foundation of trust. Without it…without trust…the ‘right’ kind of conflict cannot exist. It won’t occur. It can’t occur. No matter how hard leadership tries, the ‘right’ kind of conflict will not and can not exist in an environment that is not based on a foundation of trust. Second, the leadership must be savvy enough to know when they have a created a strong enough foundation of trust that will allow them to, as Peter Lencioni says, ‘mine for conflict‘. Conflict that brings out the best in our people, their best ideas. And to get those ideas out on the table requires work…it just doesn’t happen. Leadership has to ‘mine the conflict‘…to push people to better levels of collaborating as an organization. Which cannot occur without a deep and strong foundation of trust.
Which is why it can be referred to as upside-down leadership. We have to create the right environment of trust before we can ‘mine for conflict‘. We build trust in order to push people out of their comfort zone. Both trust and conflict pushing and pulling at each other to bring out the excellence of those in the organization.
And the best place to start…
Where people are engaged the least and where you need them to be engaged the most…
Start with your meetings.
Where do we need people to engage their best ideas and their best efforts at problem solving…meetings. And yet, most people are disengaged the most in the very place we need them deeply engaged. A reason for this is we avoid conflict…we don’t want to rock the boat…we want nice, smooth, efficient running meetings. Which translates into boring and disengaged. Meetings are the very place that we need to pull out our leadership toolbox and ‘mine for conflict‘.
It goes back to upside-down leadership. While most leaders look to run efficient, smooth meetings, they would be best served to ‘mine those meetings for conflict‘. If you want the best from your people…if you want the best ideas on the table…it will never occur in smooth, efficiently run meetings. Sometimes you have to go against the grain. You have to push back for people to put their best on the table. You have ensure that those in attendance have something to lose if they don’t engage in the process… It takes skill, it takes work, it takes leadership. It is all about rocking the boat, but rocking the boat in a positive way. And until you do, you won’t get the best out of your people. The best will never make it to the table.
Sometimes the best leadership requires taking an upside-down approach. As complicated as it sounds, you have to build trust to create conflict…positive conflict. And when you have created that type of environment…then you have the best opportunity for getting the best out of your people. The best ideas, the best thinking are out on the table…for all to provoke, twist, recreate, rework, and take to a higher level…and that is how excellence is achieved. And when you have created that type of environment, your organization, your teams, and your people will be hitting on all cylinders.
If you want to achieve the gold standard…then you have to mine for the gold.
I remember early in my leadership career evaluating meetings by the lack of conflict and being able to “get through” the agenda. What I learned as you have stated is that the agenda was still there, still being discussed and debated, just not at the meeting. It is extremely difficult to let open the opportunity for your employees to provide truthful feedback without wanting to immediately respond and react with a comeback. But that is really what is required! The flipside is that employees must be prepared to hear feedback that is also not to their liking. It has to be a two way street for an authentic relationship which is where trusts comes from. Finally, respect much always be present in any feedback loop. Well written David!