Martyn Drake: The value of constructive conflict in your team

It pays to challenge and question the assumptions made by your team, no matter how uncomfortable that might feel

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

I’ve never been a fan of the upward inflection at the end of sentences, which seems to be increasingly popular among the under 25s. It indicates an implicit request for approval and validation, by posing a soft "wouldn’t you agree?" at every step of the conversation. It implies a lack of confidence and conviction in what’s being said and suggests that, at least for the speaker, consensus and conflict-avoidance are more valuable than argument and truth.

But there’s another locutionary fashion for conflict avoidance that seems to be invading public discourse, one I’ve also heard in executive and board meetings on various occasions, and it’s rarely a good sign. Listen to almost any front-bench UK politician and you will hear examples repeated ad nauseam. A question is asked, or an issue raised, and the response is some broadly related information or statistic, followed by the phrase "that is why" and a summary of their existing plan.

It signals two things: disengagement from the real issue and defence of the pre-existing approach.

Of course, there are times when the plan that’s put forward is exactly right for the issue that was raised, but it’s a rare event. More often it’s a construct people use to reframe that issue into one that’s easier to fix, one that fits with the agenda and is already under way, thank you very much. The subtext being we’re way ahead of you, we know what we are doing, so back off.

It’s far more assertive than the upward inflection, but the purpose is the same: to head off criticism, challenge and conflict. In politics it’s a hard defence to break through, especially at PMQs, where there’s no way to follow up. It usually takes a tough interviewer with a quick, critical brain to spot the weak comparisons and the underlying flaws in the logic, and to pose more pointed questions to expose them. And that’s exactly what needs to happen in boardroom and leadership meetings.

That’s why (see what I did there) every member of a leadership team should be fluent in their colleagues’ plans – what those plans could achieve and what they almost certainly won’t. It’s your job to question and challenge each other’s assertions, as uncomfortable as that may feel to begin with – to bring a critical, outside perspective to the assumptions they make on a weekly basis. And it’s equally important that they do the same for you.

At one leadership awayday, the construct was used so frequently that I started counting them. By the first break I’d already heard it seven times. When we returned, the first thing I did was to write "That’s Why" on the flipchart. After that, every time it, or something similar, was rolled out, we calmly paused the discussion, defined the issue properly and tested, not only whether the plan that was mentioned could meet the challenge, but also whether it was the best, fastest, most efficient way to solve it. It was used only two more times, and it was crystal clear from the notes afterwards that the only decisions we’d made in the first session were to continue with what was already being done. But in the second and third sessions of the day, the decisions were much more progressive, the actions much more forthcoming and direct, and the outcomes far more transformational than they would otherwise have been.

At your next leadership meeting, listen out for that same construct. The words might vary, but the pattern is the key. And if you see it happening, pause the discussion, test the logic and pose the alternatives, because if all you’re doing in those meetings is agreeing to carry on with the plan your time would probably be better spent elsewhere. Wouldn’t you agree?

Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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