Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Conflict is good

Who is the most effective CEO? A few years ago Prof Morten Hansen and his colleagues set out to answer this question by analysing reams of stock market performance information and using this to create a ranked list of 2,000 CEOs from across the globe.  Unsurprisingly, Steve Jobs came out top, followed shortly by Jeff Bezos.  What did give Prof Hansen a shock was the CEO that came 16th out of 2,000. Ever heard of Bart Becht?  He is CEO of UK FMCG firm Reckitt Benckiser and made it to the top 1% of global CEOs.  How has he managed this? When Prof Hansen’s curiosity drove him to jump on a plane and go and observe the company in action, he noted that the secret ingredient to RB’s success was the way they encouraged constructive conflict in meetings.

As Hansen explains, this led to “better, more considered decisions that ultimately led to superior performance. Many people today understandably yearn for less fighting, not more. But as I discovered, Reckitt Benckiser’s achievement wasn’t simply to fight. It was to fight well.”

By interviewing employees and managers across the business, Hansen summarizes the following Reckitt Benckiser norms for ‘fighting well’:

  • Show up to every meeting 100 percent prepared.
  • Craft an opinion and deliver it with conviction (and data).
  • Stay open to others’ ideas, not just your own – focus on listening not merely persuading.
  • Let the best argument win, even if it isn’t yours (and often it isn’t).
  • Feel free to stand up and shout, but never make the argument personal.
  • Always listen—really listen—to minority views.
  • Never pursue consensus for its own sake.

In our workshops on collaboration in matrix and complex organizations the topic of dealing with conflicting and competing priorities is often high on the learning objectives of our participants. The reality is that conflict is a natural part of the collaboration process in matrix organizations. You could even argue, that it’s the point!

In other words, if everything could be perfectly aligned you wouldn’t need a matrix. Conflict therefore needs to be embraced, rather than avoided. Fight, flight or freeze should no longer be our automatic response. Instead, conflict becomes an opportunity for greater collaboration. However it needs to build on a platform of psychological safety, courage and skills.

To help you embrace the new paradigm of ‘conflict is good’, here are 3 top tips you can try out today:

  1. Take a breath and recognize that it’s not personal. In fact it’s a good sign that both parties care about the outcome.
  2. Turn your conflict response on its head by focusing on finding together the common goal, a shared reason for resolving this conflict. This often involves reconciling both the needs of the customer, your organization and the different functions and parties involved.
  3. Start the process of creating mutual understanding by reaching out to your conflict partner, asking to understand their ‘why’ behind their ‘what’.

These three steps could be the start of your journey to becoming a top 1% CEO (or just a really great manager)

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