Four Steps to Create a Culture of Candor

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On a consulting mission years ago a dealer told me, “Our team is very healthy; we never fight.” I replied, “If your team doesn’t fight it’s not healthy, it’s dysfunctional.” Teams with strong personalities, passions, and opinions will clash from time to time about issues, strategies, and over how to best advance the organization. And this is a very good thing. Following are four reasons why conflict is not only necessary, but should be insisted upon:

1. Conflict brings about clarity.
I’m not referring to open conflict and raging battles of egos on your show room floor or service drive, but conflict behind closed doors as important decisions are being debated and made. Differing opinions ensure every side of an idea, opportunity, or solution is being looked at. It eliminates blind spots that may have developed, and reduces the danger of group-think, which can cause you to do what is popular, convenient, or cheap, but not necessarily what is best or right. Conflict is especially necessary when the stakes are high, and should never merely be “tolerated,” but insisted upon.

It’s important, however, for all involved to understand that once the final decision has been made, that the conflict ends. Healthy teams fight about issues they care about, but then unite behind the decision once it’s made. When Colin Powell was Chief of Staff he outlined this dynamic very well:

When we’re debating an issue, being loyal to me means giving me your opinion whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once the decision has been made the debate ends. From that point on being loyal means getting behind the decision and executing it as if it were your own.

2. Conflict is engaging. It takes both a secure and mature leader to say the following to engage his or her team, and encourage conflict:

“Team, here’s what I think the best course is concerning this issue. Now shoot some holes in it. What have I overlooked? What would make this better?”

Frankly, this kind of scenario scares poorly developed leaders half to death. They ask, “Why would I ask for trouble and invite dissent when I know what we need to do?” Here are three thoughts concerning this:

A. You may know something good to do, but the team may collectively come up with something better. Remember: any idea should be considered as a good idea until you find the best idea.

B. Your job as a leader is not to have all the answers, but to surround yourself with people who do. It’s not desirable or feasible to believe you can or should be able to think of everything. You have people on your team right now who know things you don’t know, and who see things you don’t see. By engaging them in this manner you cause them to become more emotionally invested in the company and its goals; they’re no longer “driven stakes,” but stakeholders. Smart leaders understand that people will support what they help create—that they want a chance to weigh in before they buy in.

C. Engaging your team in this manner and giving them a voice doesn’t diminish your authority. You still get to make the decision, but now it will be a better decision since you have collaborated with other smart and capable people in the process.

In the LearnToLead offices we have a formal conference area, and we also have “The Living Room.” True to its name, The Living Room is comprised of a couple of comfortable couches, chairs, tables, and the wall behind it reads: “None of us is smarter than all of us.” The Living Room is where we brainstorm ideas, and over the years we’ve come up with some great ideas debating in this format. But the ideas weren’t mine. In fact, I haven’t personally had a great idea in quite some time, but I’ve had good ideas that my team has turned into great ideas when I’ve invited them to challenge and add value to them. The lesson is this: good ideas become great ideas when the collective energies, wisdom, and passions of your team are united and harnessed in an open forum.

3. Too much harmony invites complacency and is cancerous to decision-making. The worst decisions I’ve ever made—and I’ve made my share—were made void of conflict. Instead, everyone was nodding their heads in affirmation, as we hurriedly and harmoniously moved the meeting along to its “Kumbaya” conclusion. No one spoke up, raised a hand, offered an alternative, or challenged a point, primarily because I didn’t invite them to. And I sure didn’t insist on it. Instead, we all left the meeting feeling good about how we were on the same page, with little regard that the same page is often the wrong page, and that if everyone is thinking alike it’s a pretty good indication someone isn’t thinking at all.

4. Conflict creates a culture of candor. A culture of candor puts a high value on robust dialogue, honest debate, and an appreciation for the varied strengths and talents different team members bring to the table. A culture of candor creates the conditions for the truth to be heard, and for people to disagree, contribute, and challenge one another without fear of negative consequences. Thus, a culture of candor creates a growth environment where people are not only stretched and acclaimed, but where those who have the courage to speak up are championed, and not seen as saboteurs or trouble makers.

Insisting on conflict within the guidelines I’m suggesting will take some of the pressure off you, as you no longer must believe you’ve got to think of, and solve, everything that goes on in your dealership. Nope, your value as a leader is not in creating the complete content for every strategy or idea, but to create the context for others to contribute to that content. Feels better already, doesn’t it?