Productive conflict: 10 steps to building your executive team

A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”

–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

A diverse Executive Team of talented, strong, diverse individuals is a great thing, right? Diversity can promote passionate discussions, provides multiple perspectives, create a richer range of options, and, ultimately produce better decisions. Diversity also generates conflict; sometimes, a lot of it!

When teams fail to become cohesive and powerful, it is often because their leaders are  uncomfortable with, or lack the knowledge of, how to manage conflict. Some leaders see conflict as a problem to be eliminated, so they strive, instead, for harmony. Harmony breeds complacency though, and harmony and complacency are actually strong predictors of poor performance. Productive conflict, when focused on the right decisions for the whole organization, is a sign of a healthy cohesive team.

Here are 10 steps to build your own cohesive team with healthy conflict:

  1. Recruit All-Stars.

It’s your responsibility to ensure your Executive Team is comprised of “All-Star” Executives. The motto of one of my Vistage members is “I expect your performance to surpass my expectations.” Remember that your team is only as strong as its weakest link. Tolerating mediocracy, or worse, sets up the rest of your team to become cynical and lose respect for you.

  1. Make It Safe.

According to a research study published in the Harvard Business Review, “making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders.” Our brains are wired with a need to connect and belong. Feeling safe promotes connections while feelings of danger promotes separation, stress and conflict. Appreciating the gifts of each individual, listening empathically, and asking clarifying questions are some of the most important skills that you need to build a safe environment and connection with every employee.

  1. Show Your Humanness.

I know many people who believe that vulnerability is the same thing as weakness. (I used to be one of them!). The opposite is true. Strong people who show their vulnerability are transparent with their thoughts, feelings and mistakes. Showing your humanness gives others permission to show theirs and is valuable for building trust.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book, The Advantage emphasizes the importance of this type of trust: 

This (vulnerability based trust) is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent, honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” “Your idea is better than mine,” “I wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,” and even, “I’m sorry.”

…When team members trust one another, when they know that everyone on the team is capable of admitting when they don’t have the right answer, and when they’re willing to acknowledge when someone else’s idea is better than theirs, the fear of conflict and the discomfort it entails is greatly diminished. When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer. It is not only okay but desirable. Conflict without trust, however, is politics, an attempt to manipulate others in order to win an argument regardless of the truth….

  1. Inspire and Challenge Them.

Your teams must understand and be passionate about your company’s direction. Use storytelling to create a vivid picture of what success looks like. Ask periodically if everyone is still committed to the vision.

An inspiring purpose alone is not enough. Your Executive Team must define its reason for being, which is different than the company’s. The Team needs a purpose statement that clarifies why it exists, who their primary customers are, and what they’re trying to accomplish as a team.

Just like soldiers in a foxhole who have each other’s backs, a compelling direction and purpose creates a sense of working on something that is bigger than the individual and helps turn enemies into allies.

  1. Ask, “What Is Right For Our Company?”

Once trust is established and they are excited about the direction of the company, your Executive Team will be more willing to prioritize the company’s interests above their own. Because we are human, personalities will still become intertwined with issues. When a discussion moves toward “Who is right”, redirect it instead to “What is right for the company?”.

  1. Emphasize Self-Development

Marshall Goldsmith states, that “organizations that do the best job of cranking out leaders today tend to have CEOs who are directly and actively involved in leadership development. …No question, one of the best ways top executives can get their leaders to improve is to work on improving themselves. Leading by example can mean a lot more than leading by public-relations hype.”

To lessen the impact of defensive egos and self-interest, provide employees with opportunities to improve themselves. Emphasize to your Executive Team the importance of self-improvement. Share your own weaknesses and challenges, and show how you are improving yourself. Help employees create a developmental plan for their own growth, and reward them as they progress. Budget dollars and time toward management and personal development training. Consider implementing coaching and mentoring programs within your company.

  1. Be uncomfortable.

Vistage speaker Pat Murray says, “you know you are discussing a real issue, when you feel it in the pit of your stomach.” When this feeling occurs and a real issue needs discussed, many people become passive or avoid the conflict altogether. Running from discomfort only creates more conflict later, because the issue will just worsen the longer it is avoided.

Learn how to accept the negative feelings that conflict may invoke. The good news is that we can train our bodies to experience relaxation instead of stress when these emotions are too intense.

  1. Focus On What Is Most Important

If there is going to be conflict, then it has to be worth the potential bruises to the egos of you and your Executive Team. Prioritize topics of discussion and focus on those that are most important, where the stakes are highest, and where the outcome has the biggest impact on the business.

  1. Redirect Behavior.

Undesirable behavior always creates performance and cultural issues in an organization. As soon as the behavior manifests, address it. Don’t attack the offender. Instead, clearly state what behavior you expect, and ask your Executive Member to commit to demonstrating it in the future.

  1. Facilitate equal participation

Make sure all members equally participate in a discussion. Encourage introverts to speak, and manage over-contribution by the extroverts.

The psychological and emotional aspects of interpersonal relationships are complex and difficult. Cohesion formed in safety and vulnerability yields healthy dialogue and conflict. Steve Jobs used the analogy of polished rocks to describe this interplay:

stonesWe went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he(Job’s neighbor) turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around. And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones. 

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Cheryl McMillan

Cheryl is a Vistage Master Chair and Executive Coach. She has a passion for raising awareness in leaders about how their choices and unconscious actions impact their results. She leads two C-Suite peer advisory boards, comprised of CEO's or …

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