Watch this video: Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree, and respond thoughtfully to the questions posed.
Of the many concepts she presents, do you agree with her? How do you approach conflict? Do you do everything you can to avoid it or do you embrace it?
Now think about a time you have been in conflict in your career and how it was handled. Have you had the opportunity to work with a leader who has modeled dealing with conflict well? What techniques did you observe? And did this empower you to approach conflict?
Alternatively, if you still do not feel as though you could approach conflict as an opportunity to learn, grow, and problem solve, what must you do to improve this leadership skill in yourself? And do you feel it is essential to effective leadership?
Margaret Heffernan’s central thesis is the need for informed, occasionally contentious engagement as a necessary measure to increasing the likelihood of success. Essentially a plea for increased debate and an impassioned warning against the employment of “yes-men,” Heffernan’s argument is about the importance of inviting conflict into the workplace as a means of ensuring success. Anybody who has ever listened to advice or instructions with which one fundamentally disagrees, yet failed for one reason or another to object, has engaged in “conflict avoidance.” Most people, Heffernan cites data indicating up to 85 percent of those queried, are afraid to confront authority with counterarguments the consideration of which could have avoided failure. For this reason, she argues, it is imperative that leaders surround themselves not with “yes-men,” but with those willing to challenge the validity of findings or conclusions and willing to propose alternative methods.
Organizations function best in which all members are in agreement regarding the goal, be it how to fight disease or prevail in a court of law. The means of achieving that goal, however, might not involve a consensus, at least at the outset, and the best means of achieving that consensus is through reasoned debate regarding the merits of various proposals. Such debates can only take place in an environment supportive of conflicting opinions.
At some point in most peoples’ lives they are confronted with the decision whether to contradict a superior, friend, or relative whose opinion may be erroneous or not best-suited to a particular situation. It is not easy to challenge those to whom we are responsible, or those whose friendship or companionship we do not wish to risk through even polite confrontation. Good leaders, however, allow for such opportunities by establishing a working environment in which alternative perspectives are welcome. A student tasked with contemplating such situations needs to examine his or her own experiences to see what situations he or she could have handled differently but for fear of conflict. This educator was raised by a senior noncommissioned officer to respect authority and chains of command. It was not easy, therefore, years later to challenge a statement made in a meeting by the senator for whom I worked when he was preparing to comment publicly without full grasp of the facts. That was not a pleasant situation, but I ended up arguing with my boss, who was surprisingly receptive to my input. (What he said after I left the room, I have no idea, but I made my point.)
There is a right way and a wrong way to accomplish just about any task. Challenging a superior or colleague on the merits of an argument or conclusion need not – nor should it – be done in anger or arrogance; it can and should be done with professionalism and with command of the facts. Heffernan’s argument, however, is that it should be done.