“I would feel that I was out of place to offer Robert advice on how he should he run his department or what he should be doing. He’s the expert in that area and…” Carl cautiously weighed his words, as he contemplated how to continue. “And, frankly, I’d be offended if Robert tried to tell me about my department.”
In those two statements, Carl had summarized the two biggest reasons that teams don’t experience the benefits that come from robust dialogue: pride and insecurity…or is it just insecurity? How does someone rise to the level of being the head of a department in an organization? Usually he or she has spent years becoming an expert in that particular area. He has learned from the experience of successfully launching and completing multiple projects. She has stayed current on cutting-edge research and technology, and has possibly even published papers within that arena.
We are a nation of specialists. So, when the team leader suggests that, as an executive management team, they need to engage in more debate about ideas, projects, issues, and conflicts, it just seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
So, how does a leader lead the team to get the most from constructive conflict without it becoming destructive?
- Emotional Intelligence. This is a broad category because it relates to recognizing one’s preferences in areas such as communication, conflict, receptivity to new ideas, vision, focus, and many other things, as well as understanding the nuances of healthy relationships. However, for teams to be effective in debate, the leaders on that team must possess a high level of emotional intelligence. This is true for both when the discussion is centered on their area of expertise and when it’s not.
- Set the Example. If the leader is willing to let his/her ideas be critiqued, adjusted, or even tabled, then it sets the example that this really is going to be a team that values honesty and input. However, if the leader becomes defensive when his/her ideas are criticized, or if the leader resorts to sarcasm as a way to “get back” at the one who dares to question his/her idea, then the chances of building a true culture of robust dialogue are slim and none.
- Build Strong Relationships. At first, this appears to be counterproductive. One reason Carl didn’t want to critique ideas from Robert was because of respect and friendship. They genuinely respected each other too much to criticize one another. Do strong relationships create an impasse to cutting-edge debate? No, but to move beyond that perception requires time, patience, some damage control, and a lot of time spent together outside of the obligatory meetings.