Leading to Learn from Diverse Perspectives and Conflict


Eighty-five percent.

The percentage stunned me. I could not believe it. Even if it is only half as much, say 43%, it is still a large number. Please let me explain.

In Lisa’s blog post of February 26, The new leader: an online convener of diverse perspectives for systems change, she cited the work of Margaret Heffernan, a recognized entrepreneur, CEO, author (Wilful Blindness and A Bigger Prize) and speaker in Great Britain and the USA.

Lisa summarized the message contained in Heffernan’s Ted Talk on Dare to Disagree this way: “system leaders must be comfortable with conflict, manage conflict so differing views lead to new learning, encourage all voices to be heard in constructive ways, and view conflict as a healthy part of any change process.” Her assessment intrigued me to watch Heffernan’s Ted Talk. It is a very good primer on using input from all sources, including rivals/opponents to strengthen organizational decision-making.

Heffernan said the 85% statistic which surprised me came from a survey of European and American executives.

Fully 85% of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work, that they were afraid to raise, afraid of the conflict they would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments they did not know how to manage, and felt they were bound to lose.

Eighty-five percent is a really big number. It means organizations … can’t think together. And it means that people, like many of us who have run organizations and gone out of our way to find the very best people we can, mostly fail to get the best out of them.”

She also said that “If we aren’t going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it.” I liked her resolve to help executives by framing conflict as healthy behavior that could be managed constructively within an organization. My curiosity grew. I began looking online at how to manage diversity of views and conflict starting with Heffernan’s ideas. I also wanted to know how managing diverse perspectives might be more challenging in distributed work groups.

Kate Togorvnick May watched Heffernan’s Ted Talk and summarized five key actions to make disagreements over issues and pending decisions yield positive results.

  1. Appoint a devil’s advocate—Make it a regular ritual that is rotated among employees to ask hard-hitting questions before decisions are made.
  2. Find allies—Ask those whom you trust to help you analyze the whys and what-fors of the issue, do they see it similarly, differently, and why?
  3. Listen for what is NOT being said—If the discussion only focuses on one or two elements, what is not being addressed that should be considered? Is it money, technology, desired outcomes, trends or something else? Togorvnick May notes that outsiders are often best equipped to listen and identify gaps in thinking or inconsistencies in logic.
  4. Imagine you cannot do what you all want to do—Does the potential plan stand up well if other radical steps are taken? That is, if the sacred elements were no longer factors (calendar, staff, budget…), would the plan still be the way to go?ice_cubesabstract-18722_500
  5. After a decision is made, declare a cooling off period—Sometimes group momentum will lead to a decision but is it the right one? Let it marinate overnight or longer by giving stakeholders time to consider it further with family members and colleagues. Then convene group members to share second thoughts and new insights.

Most authorities I found assume that some conflict is necessary to achieve better ends.

Jeffrey Pfeffer at Harvard Business Review, May 29, 2014, believes that “Getting things done often means that you’re going head to head with people who have competing agendas.” He distilled his insights into five tips:

  1. Stay focused on the most essential objectives.  Don’t get distracted by the emotions and personal vendettas of others. Keep what you want to accomplish top of mind in everything you do.
  2. Don’t fight over things that don’t matter. Similar to #1, keep your most important goals up front even though it may mean sacrificing lesser yet meaningful interests in the short-run.
  3. Build an empathetic understanding of others’ points of view. Don’t assume that disagreement is unfounded. Encourage the identification of all interests that need to be addressed to enable all parties to buy-in and back the final resolution.
  4. Adhere to the old adage: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Pfeffer cites LBJ’s repeated actions to keep J. Edgar Hoover in his inner circle to close off Hoover’s sniper tendencies if left unattended for too long.
  5. Use humor to defuse difficult situations. This suggestion might be hard to do if you are not a natural comic but try it if you can offer an amusing and authentic take on the situation.

Mike Myatt in his Forbes article in 2012 offers an ethos for executives:Don’t fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job.” He further believes that the “root of most conflict is either born out of poor communication or the inability to control one’s emotions.” He presented two other new ideas for me.

  • Define acceptable behavior. By this, he means decisioning frameworks, published delegation of authority pathways, sound team building and collaboration practices, and clear job descriptions.
  • Hit conflict head-on. Myatt advocates unearthing potential hot spots and airing interests before they lead to more severe disagreements.

If you are still not convinced of the merits of conflict, then you might want to read Sherrie Campbell’s Entrepreneur article in October 2014 that details seven gains for people and organizations that work through conflict. Two I really like are how stronger commitments are formed when everyone’s voice is heard and considered in resolving differences and that conflict leads to creativity and new ideas. From the get-go, Campbell, a psychologist, stipulates that “conflict . . . can be extremely positive, especially in a team environment.”

If these ideas for managing and benefiting from conflict have benefit in the physical workplace, it seems to me that they can help distributed work groups, too. Other ideas that emerge for me for distributed groups to manage and learn from conflict:

  • Use regular check-in/heads-up routines to bring distributed workers together in video conferences to share new developments and concerns. Be explicit about your desire to understand what is going on in the work or sticky operations that need revamping. Ask short, open-ended questions and then wait. Don’t get defensive when they share their truths with you. Honor all points of view by truly hearing them with grace and humor.
  • Use video conference in lieu of telephone conference calls. Why? An Accenture global survey of 3,600 business professionals in November 2014 revealed that eighty percent of respondents are multitasking during conference calls. 66% are reading and responding to work emails, 35% are doing instant messaging, and 34% are focusing on personal emails, while 22% are looking at social media. Not surprisingly, active listening and participating in the online meeting is eroded by these activities. It is a little harder to multitask when participants are on-camera throughout.  Another reason why video conferences are preferable to audio-only interactions is that seeing each other’s face improves communication and fosters better recall than voice alone.
  • If distributed workers are in the minority in your organization, you might consider supporting them as an affinity group or resource network because their needs and perspectives might remain invisible otherwise. In this way, they have standing to discuss and surface issues, organize their thinking, and share their ideas with peers and leaders in the organizations at regular intervals.
  • Additionally, if distributed workers are participating in meetings with a majority of face-to-face workers in work sessions, you might consider making all participation virtual, i.e., make everyone use their internet connected device in their own offices to work together with audio and video supports.  That evens the playing field for participants.  Use multiple channels of communication such as chat & Twitter to make it easier for offsite workers to share ideas without asking for permission to speak from afar.  This is especially important if offsite meeting participants cannot see the facilitator or face-to-face grouped participants.  Alternatively, pair each offsite worker with an on-site buddy on laptops with video to stay closely connected and attuned to issue development and participation opportunities.
  • Be realistic about how much calendar time is needed to do the work, much less resolve conflicts. Finding a convenient time with the involved stakeholders may be harder when multiple time zones are involved. After 90 minutes, the quality of online interactions declines which might necessitate more sessions but shorter sessions than in a face-to-face format.
  • Use real-time, preferably face-to-face communication to resolve conflicts, not email. Most people are not gifted writers and may end up with more chaos and hurt feelings instead of positive resolution.

What’s missing?

What methods and skills do you find useful to manage conflict in groups and organizations?

How might they be different for those who collaborate for the organization primarily online?


Arctic ice picture courtesy of PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay

Conflict picture courtesy of Geralt at Pixabay


2 replies
  1. Dianne Reeves
    Dianne Reeves says:

    OMG…this is such a good article and really drives home the importance of staying focused on the end goal regardless of the manufactured resistance and boulders that may be in our path.
    I shared this blog with several individuals, especially those who are in an organizational transition phase that begets ineffective interim leadership and worse…practices that thwart advancing institutional goals and crumbles collegiality.
    Great timing for this piece; thank you.

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