I have been in the throes of helping a client with their strategic planning process. I love this work, but you might be wondering why someone with a Ph.D. in organizational psychology is of any use in facilitating strategy. The answer is that strategy is all about trade-offs, and trade-offs are all about conflict. So my job is to help humans make smart decisions in the face of conflicting interests and priorities. And there’s a LOT of psychology involved in that!
After years of doing this work, it is crystal clear to me that conflict is essential to strategic planning, and the form of conflict you should strive for is tension. But, unfortunately, tension isn’t very common. Instead, your conflict is likely rife with pressure and friction, and those make your decisions less effective and your life more stressful.
Let’s start with the healthy form of conflict: tension.
I define tension as the dynamic, multivalent interplay between opposing needs, wishes, and demands that helps you to understand the requirements and options and then align around the optimal path forward.
To evaluate whether the conflict on your team qualifies as tension, ask these questions:
- Interplay—is the conflict taking place in a conversation where everyone can hear the same information and contribute and respond in the moment? Is everyone in the deliberations given a chance to speak and be heard?
- Multivalent—are there multiple perspectives being included in the deliberations? Do you have the right people in the conversation to appreciate the different aspects of the issue? Is each of the parties able to present a compelling case for their unique perspective?
- Dynamic—are the people involved in the discussion shifting and adapting their positions based on the information provided by others? Is new insight and empathy prompting more questions and driving better and better options for how to respond?
Tension is conflict and, therefore, often unpleasant. It can be uncomfortable, contentious, and bruising, but it’s constructive and leaves you with the sense that the process was just, even if you wouldn’t have chosen the same outcome.
Imagine a scenario where you work for a high-tech company, and you’re considering entering a new market. You make a tool manufacturers use to measure aircraft, ships and other large vehicles to ensure they meet all quality standards. You see a huge opportunity to provide your device to engineers building large infrastructure projects. In this case, the idea might start with sales bringing you several lucrative opportunities. However, tension follows when engineering identifies significant changes to the software required to use the tool for construction projects. Manufacturing highlights that this new use would require workers to use the device outdoors, which creates more challenging conditions and requires new materials. Marketing tells you how their entire team is focused on fewer than ten organizations that build ships and planes and that they have zero expertise in construction. The discussion then shifts to weighing the potential revenue against the opportunity cost and generating options for dipping a toe in the water without jumping into the deep end.
All of this is healthy, important, and appropriate.
Unfortunately, your team might not set strategy in such a transparent or constructive way—you might forego the conflict. I see many important decisions made without the benefit of productive tension and instead made by applying pressure.
I define pressure as a unidirectional force applied without insight into the downstream impact of the resulting decisions or the opportunity for other parties to influence the deliberations.
To evaluate whether the conflict on your team meets the definition of pressure, consider these questions:
- Unidirectional—are the ideas moving in one direction without the forum for the person on the receiving end to have a say? Does the conflict play out as a monologue rather than a dialogue?
- Force—does the influence come with coercion or some form of power imbalance that makes it difficult for the person on the receiving end to push back?
- Without insight—does the person on the receiving end decide without the benefit of understanding how that decision will affect other stakeholders or what will be required to implement the decision?
Pressure violates the rules of healthy conflict by reducing (or removing) the opportunity to consider the ramifications of a given decision. Pressure often results in decisions being made in a vacuum, which leaves you open to many unexpected consequences later on.
In our technology company example, imagine if the CEO was exerting significant pressure on the head of sales to grow revenue. The head of sales then starts looking for more deals and ways to grow quickly and naturally lands on the construction market (thinking it’s much better to have a pool of 1,000 businesses than 10). To relieve that pressure, sales signs a contract with a high-profile construction customer without a full review by other departments. Now the pressure gets transferred to engineering and manufacturing, who must find a way to deliver, probably with short timelines. Finally, someone sends an email to customer support telling them to “expect higher volumes” as the new customers, using the product in new ways, come onstream.
This scenario is not healthy or productive. It’s likely to be a disaster.
Pressure avoids conflict, but it’s not the only failure path in strategic planning. The alternative is that your team has conflict, not with productive tension, but with harmful friction.
I define friction as the invalidating, unyielding, emotional fights that cause wear and tear on those involved and inhibit forward progress.
To evaluate whether the conflict on your team is friction, ask yourself:
- Invalidating—are members of your team ignoring, interrupting, and insulting one another? Do people downplay the importance of one another’s expertise or their obligations to stakeholders?
- Unyielding—do your deliberations become increasingly polarized with the parties retrenching and getting further apart rather than closer together?
- Emotional—do your discussions become charged with anger, frustration, and disappointment? Are people exasperated by their inability to find a constructive path forward?
Friction violates the rules of healthy conflict by shifting the focus away from the substantive issues involved in the deliberation and onto the personalities of the individuals involved.
In the example, imagine how the relationships between sales, engineering, manufacturing, and customer service evolve after rolling out a product that likely wasn’t ready for the construction market. The salesperson gets angry with engineering that they don’t have the software ready on time, and engineering lashes out, accusing sales of selling them up the creek. When the product is deployed, customer service is inundated with calls from customers who report that the product doesn’t work in freezing temperatures. They pass their anger on to manufacturing. Relations deteriorate, and everyone feels like a victim of the other team’s ineptitude.
This scenario is demoralizing and makes it harder to get a good answer for the customers and the business.
Healthy conflict is essential to making the difficult trade-offs required as part of strategic planning or simply operating your business day-by-day. If you avoid having conflict openly, you end up with pressure being applied in ways that mask the full implications of your decisions. On the other hand, if you allow conflict to slip into friction, you get stuck in a fight.
Productive Conflict Questions
Are we creating opportunities to test our ideas where we can consider competing perspectives and align around the optimal decision? Are we maximizing productive tension?
Or are we forcing one another to make decisions without understanding the implications? Are we avoiding conflict and wimping out by applying pressure?
Or are we digging in and making our conflict personal, so we get stuck without a way forward? Are we missing the point, making it personal, and allowing our conflict to become friction?
From HBR: Amy Gallo, How to Navigate Conflict with a Coworker