by Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, Troy Media
Alfred P. Sloan, one of America’s first celebrity CEOs, wasn’t afraid to shake things up in the board room, which might explain how he was able to revitalize General Motions at a time during the 1920s when it was close to bankruptcy.
At one meeting of his top executives, Sloan said: “Gentlemen, I take it we all are in complete agreement on the decision we’ve just made.” Everyone nodded. “Then,” said Sloan, “I propose we postpone further discussion until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement—and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
Just as in Sloan’s time, most organizations today need less complete agreement and more constructive conflict. Rather than discouraging resistance and negativity, leaders should surround themselves with people who can debate passionately before a decision is made—and then unite behind the final decision.
Think that’s easy to do? Think again. An opposite set of dynamics is at work in most organizations. Too many people sit in meetings and keep silent or gloss over the effect a given proposal will have on their department or co-workers. They sit quietly while the leader proceeds as if everyone is aligned. But this “consensus” is not real. Later (in “off the record” conversations) these same folks undercut or sabotage the proposal.
On management’s side of the equation, too many leaders are like Samuel Goldwyn (the fabled head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer) who once said, “I don’t want any ‘yes-men’ around me. I want them to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.”
Goldwyn’s comment underscores the concern that, even if a leader sincerely wants to hear dissenting opinions, most employees—especially at lower levels of the organization—find it difficult and uncomfortable to speak up in a formal setting. They’re unsure whether the leader genuinely wants to deal with conflict. And they fear ridicule or retaliation for “being negative.”
Even a culture of teamwork, based on developing familiarity and friendly cooperation between employees, can result in congeniality taking precedence over the introduction of ideas that might prove unpopular. In an environment that values collaboration as the top priority, employees hesitate to take any action that causes tension or appears to be divisive.
If you want to take concrete steps to shake up your decision-making processes, here are 10 suggestions:
- Assign someone on your team to the role of “Devil’s Advocate” to ensure a critical eye.
- Ask part of your group to think like the firm’s competitors (or customers or employees) in order to surface and expose flaws in a set of core assumptions.
- Establish “ground rules” that will stimulate task-oriented disagreement – but minimize inter-personal conflict.
- Keep the proceedings “transparent” by making decisions based on what goes on in the meeting and not behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
- Make sure your team members represent a diversity of thinking styles, skill levels, and backgrounds. And if they don’t, invite people with various points of view to offer their perspectives.
- Start out with a question and don’t voice an opinion. Once you’ve said, “Here’s what I’m thinking ... ,” you have already influenced your team.
- If you want honest feedback, then be the first person to admit mistakes.
- Listen (really listen) to everyone’s ideas. Let people know that you value their input and are taking into consideration what they have to say.
- Pay attention. It’s not enough to listen—you can do that while viewing text messages or pouring a cup of coffee. You also have to be perceived to be paying attention. That means you need to make sure your body language (eye contact, head nods, torso orientation, etc.) sends signals of inclusion.
- Clearly state the behaviors you want during the discussion (constructive conflict) and as a result of the discussion (shared commitment to the outcome).
The most successful organizations will be those who can harness the power of collaboration without falling victim to “group think.” Perfecting this delicate balancing act is going to take leaders who understand how to foster constructive disagreement.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. Contact her Carol at 510-526-172, email CGoman@CKG.com, or visit her website: http://www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com.