Strong views and opinions are part of what gets you into the executive suite. In fact, some disagreement is valuable and even healthy.
To execute strategy there needs a fine balance of constructive competition between some functions and aligned cooperation connecting others.
As a result, a CEO’s ability to construct the right degree of tension on one hand, with synergy and followership on the other, is often tested. The difficulty is to shape an environment that is safe enough to promote difference and give a voice to silent questions, but intense enough to create high-performance. One of robust decision-making, with unified decision taking, where the silos and boundaries don’t work against the organisation.
The tone resonates from the top. While homogeneous teams may be easier for a CEO to manage, diversity of thought and experience is highly advantageous.
The senior team then needs to work together, disagreeing when necessary but resolving those differences to design and deliver coherent and effective strategies.
Of course, it helps when people know and recognise how intellectual and interpersonal conflict differ.
In high-trust cultures, people may debate rigorously, but they also cooperate with each other easily, viewing others as equal partners who readily commit to the best overall future. Intellectual depth, breadth and ingenuity are fostered. If divisional power-interests or turf wars dominate, then directive clout stifles collegiality and heightens combativeness.
Conflict must be deflected from the important. Some business problems or opportunities are just too complex, difficult or ambiguous. Often no one individual or group can develop the answer, or if they could, they cannot execute on their own.
To deal with and think through each layer of this complexity, a cross-divisional team must do more than navigate the solid and dotted lines. It has to accept shared accountability, knowing if the team fails each member also fails.
Tension is a state of change. My observations when talking to executives during leader reviews are that there are eight underlying sources of conflict:
Values: what is believed about culture, ethics and trust,
Power: how control, authority and privilege play out,
Structure: how we are organised and kept apart,
Identity: who we are,
Goal: what we are doing,
Role: who is doing what,
Style: the way people do things,
and Procedure: how we are doing this.
Emotion also plays a considerable dynamic. Collaborative effort is a social process that requires give and take to develop conscious interdependence.
Tensions about power or personality within the team, or with the CEO, lead to resentment or polarisation, to isolation of people or ideas. When this conflict isn't addressed, it takes on a life of its own, with sides emerging, focus diverted, wrong fights battled, tactics becoming destructive and the pushing of competitive bias.
Whenever conflict begins to take a toll, coaching techniques can develop new skills in holding meaningful conversations, re-framing assumptions and learning to fight the right fights in the right way. It can be transformative. Executives who display traits of high collaboration and trust become better leaders, more effective cross-divisional contributors and sought-after mentors.
The more interconnected the organisation, the greater its intelligence.
Businesses that can get the compete-collaborate tension right are more likely to create new markets or reinvent old ones with new value propositions, generate higher growth rates and be more attractive to customers, talent and suppliers.
Dianne Jacobs is founding principal of boutique talent capital consulting and executive coaching firm, The Talent Advisors, and a former equity partner at Goldman Sachs JBWere. Her blog contains more material on this and related topics.