Conflict Avoidance or Healthy Debate…Which Works Best?

debate_2A White House staffer has been partnered with a renowned professor of constitutional law to help facilitate a delegation from Belarus in the creation of their constitution. They have a week to produce a document.

The meeting starts with a disagreement between the staffer and the professor about foundations of the new constitution, but the staffer is, as usual, called away.

When he returns, the professor is having a spirited, theoretical discussion with the delegation who are totally engaged and challenged to think differently. The staffer admonishes the professor, saying they don’t have time for the dialogue; they have to produce a set of laws by the end of the week. The professor says, “Not a set of laws, but a sense of the rule of law.”

He asks the staffer if he knew a particular WWI era Supreme Court ruling about teaching only English in classrooms. The staffer cited it perfectly, so the professor asked, “Where in the constitution does it rule against teaching in another language?” The staffer says, “So the document is irrelevant?”

The professor responds that the document is only the beginning; that a constitutional democracy succeeds only if it reflects the values already alive in the citizenry. “That’s why,” he said, “we have to instill those values in the leaders through discussion and debate.”

I’ve been taken to task before for using The West Wing as an illustration of leadership principles, but when there is such rich material, it is hard to pass it up. I can’t pass this one up.

A few years ago, I was an executive in an organization that was “going after” a coveted organizational certification. They spent a year reading the requirements, another year spreading the word, and finally started to write “the document.” They saw what had to be done as putting in programs, rather than working together to assess the organization, and take steps to make it better.

Had they started in the first year trying to understand build the values that the certification was intended to measure, they would have had three years of well-developed programs that fit their culture and their organization, and writing “the document” would have been a snap.

Instead, two years later at the document writing stage, they handed out “assignments” throughout the organization to “have this, that or the other program in place.” The window of time to have implemented had shrunk to six months and the extra work came at a time when the organization was in chaos.

You hear a lot about “words on the wall” that define a culture. The words on the wall don’t define the culture, the people do. You have an organization of 100 people, and every one of those people will have a different perspective, a different agenda and different needs.

There is only one way to grow or change a culture – get everyone in the room, get them talking, get them excited, get them engaged and have them own the part of the change they need to own. They need to find the values that are alive in their organization, discuss and debate them vigorously until there is a clear and aligned vision of who they are collectively, which will then dictate how they behave.

Then, they need to make sure that the behaviors are consistent. That’s the job of leadership.

How could this organization have done things differently?

One “program” of the certification process required that employees share in the decisions regarding their units. The “best practice program” put in place took already overworked employees, put them in meetings without a trained facilitator and told them to produce ideas.

Of course, some did well. But most others, for no reason other than they didn’t know what to do, found the exercise useless. So here you have teams of non-leaders, charged with leading themselves, with no concept of how to get things done sitting in meetings producing nothing.

Had the organization looked to the employees to define what it meant to be involved in decisions, allowed them to discuss and debate ways of accomplishing the task, they would have learned from each other what might work. Had leadership been involved in a supporting role, they would have known when the employees were stumbling, and helped. Everyone involved would have learned collectively how to accomplish the task, where were the obstacles, and how best to overcome those obstacles.

Instead, employees were told what to do and left on their own. Just like fictional leaders of Belarus having the US create a constitution for them, and then returning home to implement the change.

Like The West Wing scenario, just creating a document doesn’t make things real. Discussion and debate makes things real. Why then do we shy away from good dialogue? Instead of avoiding conflict, why not embrace conflict and learn how to trust even when there is disagreement?

What is ironic about this particular organization that was pursuing the certification, is that one of the competencies on the performance review when I first arrived was “avoids conflict.”

I think there might be an opportunity for good healthy debate!

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