Removing the threat from conflict: Is it safe to disagree with you?
Leaders who want to reap the beneficial effects of conflict must establish a climate where the threat of repercussions is removed from disagreements. Here's how.
THE CASE OF MONITIZE
In the small but rapidly growing fintech company MoniTize*, the phrase “say smart things” was commonly evoked by senior leaders to describe the culture. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that smart was determined solely by the company’s founder and CEO, Edward Mintz. It was a badge of honor to measure up to Edward’s fuzzy performance criterion. But it was a demoralizing experience to fall short, as two senior leaders had recently experienced.
The first was John, a new hire, who had expressed his professional reservations about a prevailing decision in an email to Edward. In response, John received a scathing, page-long rebuke from Edward that challenged his intelligence, competence, and fit for the job. John was stunned. He had left a decade-long career at a highly regarded global firm to serve as MoniTize’s Chief Risk Officer. And he had just moved his family across the country, far from close friends and family, to work at the company’s Seattle headquarters. His mind raced as he tried to make sense of the experience and weigh his options.
The second was Monique, a legacy employee who now headed the company’s marketing department. In response to what she perceived to be an opportunity worth exploring, Monique took the initiative. She and her team worked long hours to put together a proposal to pitch to the executive team. However, she had felt humiliated in front of her peers when Edward called an abrupt end to her presentation, dismissing Monique and her ideas with, “We’ve heard enough.” Monique sat down and shut down. She now found herself going through the motions until she could find her equilibrium and a way forward.
The lesson had been a painful one for these high-performing leaders: it was not safe to be on the opposite side of an issue from Edward. In fact, members of Edward’s senior team expended a lot of energy trying to read his mind in order to avoid embarrassment and the appearance of incompetence.
In this climate of insecurity, leaders were rewarded for devaluing one another’s contributions in order to align with their larger-than-life founder. Disagreements often devolved into personal attacks. People and ideas were reduced to one dimension: smart or stupid. The imperative members felt to prove and protect themselves diverted energy and attention from the task at hand, led to mistrust and guarded communication, resulted in suboptimal decision-making processes, and exacted a high psychological toll.
HOW PERCEPTIONS OF SAFETY ARE SHAPED IN TEAMS
Although the situation at MoniTize may seem to some to be a sensational outlier, it illustrates an important finding about teams across organizations: regardless of whether it is flagrant or humble, each leader’s behavior conveys a message to team members about how risky it is to offer ideas and opinions.
Members are quick to intuit the leader’s message and a shared understanding develops among team members about the interpersonal consequences for speaking up. These shared perceptions influence what members choose to communicate as well as how disagreements are experienced and expressed by team members. Much research shows that how teams communicate and manage conflict has important implications for outcomes, including decision quality, learning, innovation, implementation, and performance.
But even when the consequences are not as punishing as they were at MoniTize, there is always some level of interpersonal risk whenever people offer ideas and opinions, voice concerns, or disagree with a prevailing opinion in a group situation. Psychological safety is the shared perception of team members that the team is safe for risk taking.
WHAT PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY LOOKS LIKE
When psychological safety is high, members have a sense of confidence that they will not be rebuffed, embarrassed, or in some way penalized for speaking up in the team. And, because their competence, worth, and standing are not on the table, they lower their defenses.
Not only are members empowered to offer ideas and ask questions, they have increased confidence to challenge and openly disagree with other members—including the leader—without fear of personal attack or repercussions.
As a result, teams with high psychological safety have more conflicts, not less. But the conflicts are about the task at hand and are characterized by respectful discussion and rigorous debate that draws on the experience and expertise of all members.
In a high safety climate, conflicts are less likely to become emotional and members are less likely to take disagreements personally. This minimizes dysfunctional interactions. And, as less energy is expended to regulate interpersonal relationships and protect the self during disagreements, more resources are freed for effective collaboration.
Decades of research show that leaders who create an interpersonal climate of safety are better able to leverage the full contributions of their team. This is particularly important when a team’s performance depends on being able to learn in conditions of uncertainty and complexity in order to, for example, innovate, make high-quality decisions, improve quality, or implement new technologies.
A MORE NUANCED LOOK
However, psychological safety does not mean that all decisions are made by consensus. It does not imply that leaders will never exercise their position power or act unilaterally. In fact, there are situations in which a top-down leadership style may be more effective, such as in instances of extreme threat or time urgency.
In these instances, a high safety leader might seek input from team members, giving them one bite at the apple before making the decision alone. Or, the same leader may make the decision unilaterally, share it (and the reasoning behind it) with the team, and request team members’ full participation to implement.
An important takeaway from research is that leaders who have worked to create a climate of safety are able to quickly transition their teams to a more top-down way of functioning to meet situational demands, without eroding perceptions of safety. This is because safety facilitates trust in the leader: members are confident this is only a momentary change in operations.
SOWING THE SEEDS FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety does not emerge naturally. It must be deliberately cultivated in every team, even when the team is embedded in an organization with a strong learning culture.
The task is easier in newly formed teams, before counterproductive norms have developed or incidences of poorly managed conflict have made members wary.
When members believe they aren't going to be embarassed for knowledge or experience gaps, they are better able to learn from and with each other. This boosts the impact of other early training and team building initiatives, enabling teams to get down to business quicker than teams whose members are still holding their cards close. As such, leaders of newly formed teams should be intentional about developing a safety climate early on.
A HARDER ROW TO HOE
Leaders who have previously operated with a forceful, command-and-control approach or a “know-it-all” attitude will likely find members to be wary if they decide to change the team dynamic with a new leadership approach (or are required by investors or executive leadership to do so).
Research suggests that members may understandably take a wait-and-see stance, holding back their contributions until they see enough evidence that there isn’t a trap ahead. As a result, it will take some time for these leaders to convince their team, through consistent words and actions, that members are safe to speak up. It will be important for leaders to clarify new role expectations. In addition to coaching interventions with the leader, team members will also need to develop skills to productively disagree and contribute in ways that keep the discussion moving forward.
CULTURAL CONTEXT AND SAFETY DEVELOPMENT
Research shows that the broader culture in which leaders and their teams interact will influence the interpretation and perceived legitimacy of leader behaviors to foster psychological safety.
For example, if the culture created by senior leadership does not model, encourage, or reinforce interpersonal risk-taking or is marked by competition and rivalry, followers of lower-level leaders may interpret behaviors to create a safety climate as weakness. Or if the culture is marked by a rigid hierarchical structure, such as in military or manufacturing contexts, leader behavior to encourage speaking up may need to be tempered to role expectations and situational demands (e.g., time urgency or extreme threat).
In these instances, it may still be possible and desirable to enact behaviors that lead to a safety culture, but the career and reputational risks to leaders may be greater. However, some research suggests that the payoffs may also be greater in terms of enhanced team member trust, loyalty, and engagement.
FIVE LEADER BEHAVIORS THAT SIGNAL THE TEAM IS SAFE
Here are five basic ways from the research that leaders can begin to cultivate an environment where team members are encouraged—and expected—to speak up:
1. Acknowledge personal limitations and mistakes.
When leaders who are perceived as competent show their “humanness” by publicly owning up to mistakes or admitting their ignorance about a topic, these behaviors increase members’ trust in the leader and encourage members to make reciprocal disclosures.
By disclosing their mistakes, leaders legitimize mistakes as part of the learning process—to be admitted, learned from, and left behind. Members learn to become more comfortable admitting their mistakes and shortcomings without self-denigration or fear of being embarrassed in front of the team.
By disclosing their shortcomings, leaders encourage members to accurately appraise their own competencies and limitations. By taking themselves off a pedestal, leaders show that they, too, are in need of constant development. Seeking input from others with more knowledge and experience becomes the smart thing to do.
2. Recognize team members’ strengths and contributions.
By deliberately communicating the unique abilities and strengths of team members and giving sincere complements and praise for the specific value they add to the team, leaders help members identify in one another valuable resources for learning.
When leaders highlight team members’ strengths, they help members develop a more complex and holistic view of one another and themselves. Team members are not competent or incompetent; they have strengths and areas of incompetence. As a result, members can more confidently speak up without needing to prove or defend themselves. They have confidence that others will give them the benefit of the doubt.
3. Model teachability.
Leaders can be models of learning for their teams by showing an openness to ideas and information, cultivating the practice of listening before speaking, demonstrating receptivity to feedback, and soliciting team members’ input, including their concerns about a prevailing decision.
For many leaders, this means striving to balance their tendency towards telling and advocating with inquiry and genuine listening. One simple way that leaders can model teachability is to enact moments of reflection, asking their team: “Is this the only way to see this situation? What might we be missing?”
These behaviors lower the risk for team members to admit their own uncertainties and struggles. Because no one person has all the answers, team members are expected to seek and provide input in order to learn from one another.
4. Help team members put conflict to good use.
It is not enough to give team members the freedom to challenge and confront. Leaders must also develop members' ability to productively express their views and to respond to one another’s perspectives in a respectful manner.
These skills can be developed through a combination of modeling and coaching by the leader as well as facilitator-led workshops where members learn to manage disagreements in a way that fosters rigorous discussion, direct expression of conflict, and constructive problem solving with low oppositional intensity.
For example, one common source of conflict in senior teams stems from the fact that members represent the interests of their own function or division as well as the interests of the company. Dual membership creates conflict when members state that their views on a proposal reflect "what's best for the company" but others suspect they really mean "what's best for Finance." One way that leaders can coach the team to productively navigate conflicts arising from members' competing interests is by asking members to explicitly speak from the perspective of the group they represent. “Joe, what’s the reaction of Sales to this suggestion? ... Thanks, Joe. Let's hear from the other functions. Kyle, how will Engineering react to this?”
This approach has a number of benefits: 1) it affirms the legitimacy and competence behind each perspective; 2) it puts competing interests on the table so that team members can evaluate them in light of what is truly best for the company; and, 3) it reinforces that there are limitations inherent in any one group's perspective.
Because differences of perspective are a core reason for teamwork, helping members work productively through them opens the door to organizational learning and new possibilities.
5. Respond positively when team members take risky actions.
Leaders must be careful not to penalize team members for speaking up. One way to build in safeguards, especially when the pressure is on, is to clarify ground rules before a meeting so that team members understand what is expected of them (e.g., provide information, vigorously debate, or sit and listen) and what facts and issues are admissible in a discussion.
However, when members make irrelevant comments, leaders should always provide respectful and constructive feedback to get the conversation back on topic. Toward this end, humor can be a useful tool as long as it affirms the competence of the speaker.
Because it can be risky to admit uncertainty in a group setting, leaders should consistently respond in a positive way when members ask for clarification (“Thanks for asking about that, Megan. I’m guessing that if you have questions, others do as well.”) or admit that they don’t understand something (“I’m not sure I fully understand that myself, Geoff. Here’s how I’m currently seeing it.”).
Finally, leaders should actively discourage team members from acting or speaking in ways that call into question others’ competence, particularly when members are offering unfiltered views and opinions: “There isn’t a right answer or clear direction that I can see, Kevin. We’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts about this in a moment.” Here, too, leaders should model considerate and constructive feedback to team members’ comments, regardless of whether they are airtight.
CREATING A SAFETY NET
Taken together, research shows that these five leader behaviors not only increase member loyalty and trust, they also enable members to accept themselves, one another, and the leader as fallible works in progress who often must feel their way forward in conditions of unpredictability and uncertainty.
When members perceive that the team is safe, they are freed to risk being transparent about their own developmental gaps and to express appreciation for the strengths of other members. As such, they are more open to feedback and differing points of view.
And, because they expend less energy trying to prove or defend themselves, members have more cognitive resources available to process feedback flexibly and critically. This means that disagreements become more productive. And more frequent. But the focus remains on the task at hand, the tone is respectful, and the process enables teams to learn.
In a climate of safety, conflict—even conflict with the leader—is much less risky. Leaders have created a safety net that gives members the confidence and peace of mind to fully contribute to the work at hand.
Although the concept of psychological safety has been explored by organizational researchers since the 1960s, readers may be most familiar with the work of Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson.
Leader Behaviors one through three in this article draw from recent research by organizational scholars Bradley Owens and David Hekman on humble leadership.
* MoniTize is a fictional company. The case study presents a composite of conflicts experienced by senior leaders in real companies.
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