True Collaboration Embraces Conflict

Read this article for ideas to help employees manage conflict effectively and openly.

Editor's note: Research by McKinsey & Company's Organization Practice finds that better collaborative capabilities help companies achieve superior financial performance. These results are supported by academic research, which shows that the ability to collaborate in networks is more important than raw individual talent to innovativeness; it also boosts employees' overall performance and loyalty.

Effective collaboration is essential for creating value. Indeed, it is one of the reasons we create corporations, because organizations are more effective than individuals at allocating resources. But knowing and doing are two different things. As organizations grow, collaboration can suffer – particularly across silos, as people learn to work for the benefit of their own group rather than the whole. This lost potential in collaboration is a huge, untapped source of competitive advantage, one that executives appear to be aware of. In a 2005 McKinsey survey, only 25 percent of senior executives would describe their organizations as effective at sharing knowledge across boundaries, even though nearly 80 percent acknowledged such coordination was crucial to growth.

One of the most difficult and interesting aspects of collaboration is conflict. True collaboration cannot exist without personal commitment, and commitment brings with it the possibility of engaging in healthy conflict and debate. If I go to a meeting but do not have the chance to test my views against contrary opinions, I may leave the room saying "yes" to initiatives without feeling any personal commitment to them. Before you can have healthy debate, you need to establish a baseline of trust that makes it safe to voice dissenting views. You may also need to develop people's skills in areas such as how to de-personalize ideas, how to ensure that everyone's views get heard, and how to make it clear that once the debate is done, the decision is binding on everyone taking part, even if their view was not adopted.

Since employees watch their managers' behavior for cues on the organization's values, managers can signal the acceptability of conflict by engaging in debate with their seniors. If employees see managers acquiesce to their senior managers without open debate, they're likely to follow suit. If on the other hand, there is an open commitment to debate and an explicit understanding that debate moves the organization to better decisions, then employees are more likely to bring their ideas into the arena.

Role modeling is only one of several ways that management can signal to employees that conflict is a natural part of collaboration, one that can be managed successfully in the organization. Companies can overtly state that conflict is okay; at McKinsey, for example, the obligation to dissent is a core value because we believe it gets us to better answers when solving complex issues for clients. This obligation is reinforced at every level of training and in company discussions of firm values. Skills in encouraging and managing healthy conflict successfully can be part of ongoing training programs. And of course, managers can reinforce these principles by ensuring that employees do not suffer negative consequences solely for disagreeing or introducing constructive conflict into a conversation.

We have seen many interesting examples of ways to manage conflict effectively and openly in organizations.

  • Some groups use a visual symbol – a yellow card, for example – in meetings as a way for individuals to signal that they have an objection or that they feel their view (or someone else's) is being overlooked. Bob Sutton and other management researchers have noted the tendency for senior people to dominate conversation within meetings. Raising the yellow card signals that the objector is acting within the group-defined agreement of behavior and serves as a cue to remind the others that the group has agreed on the necessity and value of conflicting opinions and debate.
  • In a real-time production environment, quick and informal meetings can resolve issues and fix small problems before they become big ones. Following a series of late deliveries (complete with subsequent recriminations) at one aerospace company, the global head of operations began a policy where if a conflict arose or a mistake was discovered along the production line, all work in that section stopped immediately. The managers of that section, along with those of the sections immediately upstream and downstream, gathered quickly in a team room for a fast meeting to resolve the issue. These meetings rarely took more than 20 minutes, sometimes less than 10, and occurred only a few times a week. But they were effective in quickly resolving problems that might otherwise simmer or create larger issues. Stopping the production line may look expensive, but it was less costly than the mistakes that would otherwise have occurred.

Both of these examples show how managers implemented simple but effective ways for employees to air their conflicts, to openly debate their opinions in a safe environment.

Source: Leigh Weiss,
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Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2020, 5:07 PM