July 13, 2010
Conflict sells. It is everywhere. From semi-reality shows where people, their self-respect wearing as thin as their mental acuity, stage mock arguments (for money) to cable news shows where educated pundits stage real “debates” (for money)—the common thread is conflict, disagreement, and differences of opinion.
That’s good, right? Variety is the spice of life. We don’t want to be a bunch of yellow pencils or robots in drab grey uniforms. And. there’s no telling where the next good idea is coming from. So leaders in healthy organizational cultures seek feedback; they listen to others. Servant leaders will purposefully entertain conflicting points of view, especially those that contravene their personal desires, as a governor on position power.
Yet, ongoing internal strife and conflict are very damaging to any organization. A unified team with average strategies will outperform a divided team with perfect strategies every time. So leaders are faced with a challenge: how do we seek input and listen to diverse points of view while forging unity? The complete answer is well beyond the scope of a column, but here is one suggestion:
Set Rules for Getting and Giving Effective Feedback
In this day and age, opinions are kings. They can be shared instantly by hitting “reply to all” and by writing on blogs and social networking sites. In the context of a team where unity must prevail, the overarching key to success is to formalize the process of getting feedback by defining overall expectations:
- Specifically describe how the feedback will be used; the decision it will influence.
- Make sure everyone feels safe in expressing their opinions and feels they have been heard and understood. This is what we all want.
- Help people remember: Facts are our friends, but opinions can go either way. There may not be a right or wrong way, just different ways to skin a cat.
- Teach that not all opinions are equal. On certain subjects, some people will have paid the price to develop expertise—and their investment in education and experience should lend more weight to their input on related matters.
- Remind that a group of people will never agree on everything. There are diverse perspectives, different personality types, and varied backgrounds that color how we see things—even “absolutes.” Reasonable, intelligent people can look at the same set of facts and draw very different conclusions.
- In most cases, people working together want to do their very best and put the best possible “product” forward. When people take ownership and care, they also allow themselves to become vulnerable.
Therefore, the following rules for giving feedback help us take care when expressing opinions that can be taken as criticism or suggestions for improvement so that we do not create unintended consequences.
- Encouragement, appreciation, and positives should always be mentioned first. To do otherwise runs the risk of having those who sweat with great effort feel unappreciated and discouraged. They may throw up their hands and say I quit!
- To set the stage for dialogue—an honest back and forth—soft words are better than absolutes. Use “It is my opinion,” “I think,” “I feel,” “Perhaps we should consider,” and so forth. Stating an opinion as an absolute fact runs the risk that others will feel defensive and either bite back or clam up. Either way, the process is damaged.
- It is very important that we do not ever impute motives. Until we have a healthy give-and-take conversation, we do not know what others think or feel when they do what they do. If we come across as too judgmental, people will tend to defend themselves rather than listen.
- Finally, we should have proper expectations that being really listened to is fair coin for the exchange. There is no guarantee our ideas will be accepted by the group or the leadership, and we must be prepared to set them aside and move forward in unity.
This last part is the hardest. To be emotionally invested in a decision, have it not go our way, but will with the intellect to be fully supportive in unity is hard work reserved for fully mature teammates. Conflict may sell, but unity rules! Effective feedback with boundaries is part of the process.