Leading Conflict: The Art of the Productive Disagreement

In this excerpt from The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws That Will Make People Want to Perform Better for You, by Michael Feiner, the former PepsiCo chief people officer explores the responsibilities of leadership.

Friday, September 1, 2006
Write To The Editor Reprints

Let me tell you the story of a meeting early in my career at Pepsi. Pepsi did not have one of those caste-system cultures, which dictates that meetings can only occur between executives fairly close in level. To the contrary, when you went to a meeting there as a junior executive, the president might be there, or the CFO -- if you had a reason to be at a meeting you could be there with people from three or four levels above you.

There were maybe eight or nine people from a variety of functions at this particular meeting, then, from up and down the firm. As I was new to the company, I expected the discussion to give me a good cross-section of how executives at various levels thought and behaved.

While I don't remember what we were discussing, I do remember it was an absolutely dreadful meeting. The executive running the meeting was bullying and dominating -- not listening, not asking questions, but cutting people off -- and no one had the guts to tell him to shut up.

No one advanced an alternative point of view by saying something like, "You might be right but let me give you another perspective on that." It struck me that the team did not do a good job of analyzing the issue, or dissecting the problem or getting to its root causes.

I thought they were trying to solve for symptoms, and I thought the meeting -- which had taken an hour or more -- was pretty pathetic. The boss was a loudmouth, everybody else at the table behaved like sheep, they weren't good at problem solving or brainstorming and, because they failed to identify the root of the problem, their solution didn't make any sense.

As we left the conference room my boss -- who had arrived late and had attended only part of the session -- took me to one side and said, "Well, what did you think of the meeting?"

I said, "Do you really want to know?"

He said, "Sure."

And I said, "This was one of the worst meetings I've ever been to in my life. This was pretty sad. For the following reasons ..." And I recounted the long list of dysfunctional behaviors I had observed. I was, as you might expect having read this fairly forthright in my assessment.

And my boss said, "Well, yeah, that's true. And if I think about it I can understand why you feel that way. But what did you do?"

I said, "What do you mean? I'm new, I'm -- "

He said, "You're at the meeting, you're an executive and if you were there to observe, I would have told the group that you were there to take notes. You were there to be part of the meeting. Leaders affect the outcome of meetings and, around here, reporting on what's wrong with the meeting without taking any personal responsibility for the outcome suggests you exercise zero leadership.

"So do you want to report on the problem or do you want to take personal responsibility for fixing the problem? Because if you want to do the former, you're in the wrong place. I could care less about the other people in the meeting, but I hired you because I thought you had what it takes to be a leader. Leadership is not about identifying problems, nor reporting them, nor tabling them, but being a part to fixing them. I'd give you an A for analysis, but you just flunked your first leadership test."

In other words, my boss was telling me that leaders take ownership of outcomes. One of the ways to do this -- and this would have greatly improved the ill-tempered meeting we'd both just attended -- is by leading conflict.

Now, conflict is a lot like cholesterol. There's the good kind and the bad kind, and just as people have both types of cholesterol, so organizations have both types of conflict. Most health -- conscious people know that not all cholesterol is bad, and that the goal is to encourage HDL while minimizing LDL.

When it comes to organizational conflict, however, we often assume it's all bad. This is not the case. Organizations need conflict -- the good kind -- to grow and prosper. High-performance leaders, in fact, seek to create healthy conflict, because it is from debate and exchange of ideas that the best decisions get made, innovation occurs and needed change is produced.

Newsletter Sign-Up:

HR Technology
Talent Management
HR Leadership
Inside HR Tech
Special Offers

Email Address

Privacy Policy

These are all essential to organizational growth. In the case of my first meeting at Pepsi, a good dose of healthy conflict would have gone a long way toward preventing the kind of group-think that occurred, as well as improving the analysis of the issues. It also would have helped pressure-test the solution. The boss, however, failed to create an environment where this kind of conflict could occur. Instead, by continuously cutting people off and stifling debate, he created the bad kind of conflict.

Situations still develop where all kinds of unhealthy conflict arise, [and] there are numerous instances where leaders must address unhealthy conflict within their teams, or between their team and another team.

These might include personality conflict, where people clash because they simply don't like each other. Or conflict over treatment, where a person feels his or her wages, hours, or working conditions are unfair. Or conflict due to jealousy, where a manager covets what a colleague has.

Or conflict where someone feels their ethics or values system is threatened by a decision. Or conflict when people are asked to go along with major organizational change they don't agree with. Or conflict over power and position, where two leaders (and the businesses they run) may be vying for the same brass ring, like the John Mack, Phil Purcell power struggle at Morgan Stanley, which led to Mack's resignation in January 2001.

When unhealthy conflict between two leaders metastasizes to entire divisions of an organization, it's effects are especially damaging -- people working in those groups spend much too much of their time worrying about internal enemy, the conflict quickly becomes focused on personalities rather that objective viewpoints, and while this is going on the competition vanishes into the distance.

Excerpted with permission from The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws That Will Make People Want to Perform Better for You, by Michael Feiner, copyright 2004, Warner Business Books.

Copyright 2017© LRP Publications