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To Belong You Need Conflict

How has corporate culture shifted to dampen conflict and simultaneously piss people off by failing to address conflicts? What are the implications?

I’ve been thinking about the question above, which came out of last month’s story about how to create belonging for ourselves

Finding an environment in which to plant yourself that yields good results is a future proof skill that has risen in value due to the shorter job tenures, acceleration in skills shifts (WEF says 44% of our core skills are expected to change in the next 5 years) and a longer life and career.

But what of companies? How can they inspire diversity and belonging and what is going wrong?


Belonging is a future proof skill…for companies

In the past, people would ask, “are you an IBM man*?” This persona was so strong that during the early internet days when IBM wanted to recruit more diverse candidates from my business school, they dared to ditch their gray suits and came to campus in khakis and red cardigans. Not exactly a radical act of diversity as every man was wearing an identical outfit. But if you decided the cardigan fit, you were golden.

If it didn’t fit but you liked the work, needed the job or didn’t get into the place you really wanted, you hid the pieces that didn’t fit in for fear of being found out as not of the Order of the Red Cardigan.

Times have changed and our complex, uncertain environment means we never know what combination of genius we’re going to need. Things are moving fast. Risks are coming in to sideline us from places we didn’t know were possible. This requires us to have more perspectives around the table and to consider folks' needs in order to ensure voices are heard and contributions are considered.

As Gena Cox, a friend and author of the recent book Leading Inclusion, said to me “business leaders have a significant responsibility to respond to a changing world in ways that consider the needs of multiple stakeholders.” 

For leaders, this becomes a juggling act.


Leadership requires trade-offs

Let’s take just employees as a stakeholder group. In one of my executive roles, we reviewed the employee benefits for our policy renewal. Should we offer a comprehensive maternity package even though many of our current staff were not likely to have babies? If we offer great benefits, it might affect our profits and people’s bonuses. Was it ethical to not have great coverage for the current people on staff likely to benefit? Would offering it entice better people to join us?

At the end of the day, these decisions often require trade-offs. There is no right answer.

We try to convince ourselves that there is a “right way” by using benchmarks and best practices. These get us into trouble when we haven’t been clear about the cost and benefits.

Leaders seem unwilling to make these deals and be transparent about them.

For example, Gena noted that the worst offenders are those that acknowledge social justice issues as critical but retreat when criticized:

  • AB Inbev leaders quickly retreated when some in the community criticized their support for LGBTQ+ issues
  • Disney did a similar flip-flop (before Bob Iger returned to the CEO role) but has since taken a principled stand for inclusion. 

“It is worse to provide and then withdraw support for a social justice issue than never to have supported it in the first place”, she explains. Supporting a change that includes people and then rescinding it “suggests they believe it is less critical to accommodate inclusion than to accommodate those who are against inclusion”.

Which brings me to why belonging needs conflict.

In my board effectiveness training, we often talk about constructive conflict or productive dissent. What makes it constructive? Clarity about the issues, the implications, the trade-offs being made and why.

When I see decisions being made and rescinded, it makes me wonder if the CEO, management, or the board had the conversation about those commitments and what they require.

When choices are made without discussion of why it seems right for the company, even the right decisions can seem empty.

What can work?

  1.   Encourage productive dissent. Alfred Sloan of GM is rumored to have said to his team, “if we are all in agreement, then let’s take a moment to find a point of disagreement in order to have more robust discussion.”
  2.   Discuss the secondary implications and tradeoffs. Take into consideration that someone’s benefits may be perceived as a cost to another group and may in fact be a cost.
  3.   Explain how a decision was made, be prepared for criticism and conflict and decide in advance how you’ll deal with it. If it’s a toe in the water and your plan is to go back to “normal” if you get any criticism, rethink it. It’s one thing to try a new product.  Experimenting with how you treat humans is less humane.  

So, did we roll out the gold standard maternity package? In a low margin business at a time when it was easy to find staff, it wasn’t the right choice. When I got pregnant, I paid most of the expenses out of pocket. When my child got meningitis and had to be transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit, for sure it was stressful.

But I understood why we did it, the expectations were clear and the trade-offs made sense to me. We discussed the conflict and communicated the decision well.  When I was in the worst part of my crisis, the company also responded immediately in the moment to alleviate the financial stress and uncertainty. Just because you decide on a position, doesn’t mean you can’t change it when circumstances change.

In much of my work with boards and clients, this inability to deal with conflict is under the surface. It leads to a sense of not belonging, disengagement, attrition and malaise.

I believe we all have to get better at dealing with constructive conflict.


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