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How to build a culture of healthy conflicts and dissent in an organisation?

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

This article featured as the cover story in the 2020 July issue of the Indian Management Magazine, AIMA.

Is Conflict Good
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The answer begins with the question itself. What is a healthy conflict as opposed to an unhealthy one? The definition may actually surprise you.

A healthy conflict is one that begins with the premise that there is ‘need to dissent over a thought, process, or action, in any business or professional environment’. Here is a list of unhealthy conflicts:

  • To dissent against the person initiating the thought, process, or action

  • To show that ‘I am superior’ or that ‘I know more’

  • To gain brownie points with a boss/colleague/peer

  • To dissent because nobody else wants to

  • Because I want to

The next big step is to communicate the definition effectively to staff. One would assume that spelling it out and sending a company-wide email would do. In reality, it will not. The correct step would be to understand the steps past the definition and communicate the ‘complete package’ to the company.

Identifying where conflict is welcome and necessary

Depending on where you sit in the management structure, it is important to understand the points at which conflict and dissent are critical and where they are optional. Almost all management [structures] have a hierarchy where the CEO sits at the top of a pyramid-like structure. At the base are freshers entering the workforce. Dissent should follow the exact opposite pattern. Dissent is most important for decisions taken at the very top and lesser at the broader base of the pyramid. This is explained in the graphics below.

Decisions taken by senior management affect the present and future of any organisation. It affects the workforce, products, process, profitability and overall health. It is thus critical that dissenting voices are given adequate attention and space at this level. As we move lower down the management structure, the importance of dissent diminishes.

Identifying roles that should critically review decisions

Within every type of management structure, it is possible to identify roles whose voices are critical to decision-making. The most obvious one is the voice, whether collectively or individually, of the senior management that reports directly to the CEO. But as we move further down, it becomes less clear. Some basic principles to identify critical voices can be applied universally. Here are my top three:

  • Leave it to the experts: Decisions that affect any critical function of an organisation cannot and should not be made without consulting people who directly work in that function. These are the experts I refer to here.

  • Listen to the user: Another class of expert is the section that actually works on a process or equipment or product. These are functional experts within an organisation that bring value to decision-making.

  • Listen to the customer: Some input from an external customer is necessary but here I refer to an internal customer of an organisation who is further downstream from where the decision is being taken. This conversation helps in removing ‘dead fish’ (a term referring to broken processes or faulty products) moving downstream.

Effective Conversations

Once levels and roles are identified, the next important step is to start a conversation on dissent. It begins with the CEO having clear and respectful conversations with his immediate team.

He needs to bring in the following elements to ensure that the conversation is not lost.

  1. Define dissent: This means agreeing to disagree

  2. Define the process of dissent: It is important to know which conversations should be in-person with an individual and which conversations should be with a group. This is often critical because most people, even at senior management positions, are uncomfortable airing views in a group.

  3. Establish the final decision-maker: The CEO has absolute authority vested in him from the board. But there will be many decisions that are delegated. To have effective conversations, it is essential that the decision-maker is identified clearly. It could be someone other than the CEO, and this should be respected by the group.

  4. Establish rules for having the conversations: In any decision-making process, the role of emotions can never be ignored. However, it is critical for the CEO to be clear on ‘getting personal’ about a decision, a comment or a project. More often than not, emotional conversations derail the decision-making process. It is thus important to keep emotions out. Dissent should be based on facts, technical expertise, working knowledge, and personal knowledge; it should rarely be based on thought, assumption, or hunch.

The learning/understanding of dissenting conversations should be put into practice within the strategic functioning of the CEO + the team. It is best to designate at least one individual in the CEO + team whose mandate is to dissent from every decision that is being discussed. This helps the team understand not just the process of dissent but also appreciate the outcomes of a balanced debate.

The next step is to roll out the same methodology to the rung below senior management. Each member of the senior management group should be tasked to training and working with their respective reports on learning to dissent. For both the CEO + team and layers beneath, it is important to check in periodically and evaluate the efficacy of dissent. Over time, this gets easier and the need for checking in reduces automatically.

Setting up guidelines to handle dissent

Whether it is the CEO and his team, or Senior Management and their respective teams, it is very important to set up guidelines on how dissent is to be handled. Very often, dissent loses steam when people start believing that ‘no one listens to me; they just do what they want to’. There are many different approaches to setting up these guidelines. I am listing guideposts whose efficacy I have personally tested and believe in.

Defining an escalation matrix

All dissent must follow an escalation matrix. This is essentially a step-by-step guide to registering any sort of dissent. Every company must believe in escalation of dissent, and one way of demonstrating this belief is to define an escalation matrix. The simplest form is to encourage individuals to talk to their managers. If there is a problem that is not resolved at the immediate manager’s level, the individual must have the right to escalate it to the next level. At each level, the manager must be trained to handle the dissent and ensure that there are no negative consequences perceived or received by the dissenter. It is absolutely essential that the CEO communicates this consistently, be it in town hall-type meetings, SMG meetings, etc. While I have not really felt the need for having a written document defining the escalation protocols, it is clear that basic guidelines are always talked about. These are:

  1. All dissent should be in writing and to the immediate supervisor.

  2. Supervisors can resolve the issue but if they feel they cannot, then they must move it to the next level of management while keeping the dissenter in the loop.

  3. Where the dissent is not resolved to the dissenter’s satisfaction, he or she must be allowed to escalate it to the next level up while keeping the immediate supervisor informed.

Evaluating dissent–the three-question framework

One effective way of allowing healthy dissent to come forth across any organisation is to subject the dissent to a transparent set of three questions. The wordings may be changed, but here is what I have used effectively.

  1. How is the dissent beneficial for the larger good of the company? Sometimes a change in process might work for a department or even for many departments, but it is essential to evaluate if it works for the entire company or not.

  2. Does the dissent come from a full understanding of the project/process/policy? One danger of opening up dissent is the potential opening up of floodgates of ‘input’. It is essential to first evaluate if the communication of the project/process/policy has been adequately transparent or not. If it has, then it is important to evaluate the dissent in light of what has been communicated to the larger group. More often than not, most dissent comes from a lack of well-rounded understanding. Rather than address the dissent, it is essential that the root of the dissent is understood first.

  3. Has the dissent followed due process of being raised? Cafeteria conversations and water/coffee dispenser conversations are not true dissent. They are to be treated as conversations. The moment an organisation elevates these to acknowledged dissents, the entire intent of dissent loses its validity. Everyone has an opinion about everything, and they rightly should. But when one wants to provide constructive dissent to the organisation, it must follow defined protocol—usually as simple as putting the dissent in writing (over email perhaps) and sending it to the appropriate team or individual. Oral submissions or hearsay must be ignored.

Resolving dissent–the framework

There must be a defined protocol that transparently defines how any dissent is resolved. Most often, when the three-question framework is used, most issues are resolved. But if any issue passes the three-question phase and still remains unresolved, it is essential to define the authority that is entrusted with resolving it. Typically, the CEO is the final authority on all issues. But it is impossible for every dissent to reach the CEO for resolution. For each type of dissent, an authority must be defined.

Here are some examples of defining authority:

  • For issues related to finance, taxation, or accounting, the Director - Finance must be the final authority to resolve any dissent.

  • Where dissent is against an HR policy, the HR Committee (if an organisation has one) is the final authority. If such a committee does not exist, then typically the Director - HR in consultation with the CEO, should be designated as the final authority.

  • Sales policy or discount structure or sales accounting issues should be resolved by the Director - Sales in consultation with the Director - Finance.

Encouraging Dissent

Once the framework has been established, individuals will generally become more receptive to the concept of dissent. But the vast majority will not openly dissent about anything. Most organisations stop at the point where the framework is in place and willfully ignore the next phase of ‘encouraging the airing of dissent’. I have frequently heard that management believes creating the framework is their only duty; it is no longer their responsibility if no one uses it. More often than not, employees choose to stay quiet. This is harmful in two ways.

  • Dissent does not get a platform to be aired and builds up like a pressure cooker. This results in low motivation, less ownership of decisions, and worse, the hunt for other pastures.

  • Great ideas come from dissenting with just mediocre or good ideas. A company loses the benefit of so many minds concurrently at work.

There are many steps a company can take to encourage people to voice their concerns.

Here are some of the ones I have tried and tested:

Speak your mind

An organisation should have a channel where employees can air dissent. This channel can be anonymous but should allow individuals to identify themselves if they choose to. Comments, observations, suggestions, and even criticism should be addressed in a transparent manner. A town hall-type meeting is my preferred way of doing it. Everyone gets to listen to the issue and the resolution. This builds trust, which to me is the most fundamental building block of airing dissent.

The CEO’s direct channel

A tool I firmly believe in is the unhindered, direct communicating channel that anyone can use to reach the very top. Again, it could be an anonymous channel, or one where one can identify themselves. However, if this channel is created, then one has to be clear that it is handled by the person claiming to own it.

Here are two examples of how this channel is damaging if mishandled:

I used to be a frequent flyer with Kingfisher Airlines and loved its service. Many like me were enamoured with the welcome message the Chairman gave as soon as you boarded a flight. The message ended with the Chairman displaying an email address to which one could directly send feedback. Once when I was upset with the airline, I sent an email to the email address. I expected a bot, or at least the Chairman’s PA to write back. I was not prepared for a supervisor-level person responding to my query without even understanding what the issue was. The second has to do with a management consultant (marketing) who is still in business. This person was a pioneer in creating the direct channel; he preceded even the likes of Kingfisher or Virgin Atlantic. I once wrote to him on this channel but never received a response. That was early on in my career when I was without a fancy job or title. Many years later, I had the opportunity of letting the consultant know about this shortcoming. I explained to him that I could not do business with him because I did not think he is credible.

Building credibility

Perhaps the most fundamental building block to establishing trust is ‘credibility’. If employees do not see the CEO and/or the senior management as credible, then they are not going to believe in any trust-building exercise. Credibility is not going to be built in a day; but every day can be used to build credibility. It begins with walking the talk; not making exceptions for oneself from any rule created for the entire company. Policies that affect the lives of people must be thought through and should necessarily be a consultative process. Setting up smaller groups of individuals outside of senior management, who are entrusted with handling internal issues (eg, committees that handle green initiatives, employee engagement, charitable giving, etc) help build trust. When people feel empowered, they build trust.

There is no real shortcut to creating a culture of anything. It is built one day at a time, and requires commitment from the very top. It is only then that this will bear fruit.

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