Listen, you might find wisdom

This is part one of two dealing with conflict. In this article I discuss the importance of listening to conflicting views.

I just typed the term ‘conflict resolution’ into my search engine. I got 425,000,000 hits. It’s a hot topic alright. It’s hot because there’s so much conflict in our organisations and schools are no exception.

Most of us have a picture in our mind of the ‘perfect organisation’ or ‘perfect School’. Perhaps top of our list of traits of such an organisation is that everyone gets on harmoniously and there is no conlict. We all have the same goals (in management speak we are ‘aligned’) and agree on the best way to achieve those goals. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to work in an organisation like that?

Maybe not.

Take a step back and think about the reason conflict arises in your school. You don’t have to be in the game for long before you realise different people have different goals for education. Or at least their stated goals are different. (We’ll come back to that shortly.)

Even when we (pretty much) agree on our goals we find ourselves in the midst of a multitude of opinions on how to achieve them. Why is this?

A reasonable answer to that question would require a whole book at least. So let’s try for a shorter analysis.

We all have different life experiences that make us the people we are. How boring would it be if we were all the same. Those experiences and our own personal philosophy we build from them, lead us to all see the same thing differently. Indeed this is the very reason we believe the best solutions arise when many different points of view are taken into account.

Bay of Pigs Incident

There are countless examples of what happens when a variety of opinions is neither sought nor taken into consideration. Let’s look at one of them.

A few days after being sworn in in January 1961, US President John Kennedy was briefed on plans prepared by the previous administration to support a counter-revolution force of Cuban exiles in an attempt to invade the island and oust Castro. With a few modifications of his own, Kennedy approved the plan for execution in mid April.

Several of Kennedy’s aides and some key figures in the military thought the operation had little chance of success. However they kept their concerns to themselves partly because they believed Kennedy and his brother Robert (then Attorney General) were fixated on removing Castro.

The invasion force was defeated within three days and was a foreign relations disaster for the United States. It helped cement the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

There have been many analyses of this incident and many attribute the origin of the term groupthink to the planning for the operation.

Without going into detail about the relationships between members of the Kennedy administration there is no doubt that the failure to include multiple viewpoints was a major factor in the operation’s failure.

So what does this have to do with conflict?

Kennedy’s advisors kept their concerns to themselves because they believed (probably rightly) that the Kennedys didn’t want to hear contrary views. Perhaps they feared for their careers or future influence,

Sound familiar?

Many years ago as a young (and brash) teacher the principal came into the staff room at recess and made an announcement about some course of action he was proposing. As it happened I was the closest person to him as he spoke. After hearing his proposal which I knew most of the staff vehemently opposed I spoke up and said “You can’t do that. It’s Illegal.”

He looked straight at me and replied “My job is to run the school. Your job is to teach. Let’s keep it that way.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve witnessed similar interactions in the years since. Things like

“It’s my company and I’ll run it however I want to.”

“I’m the Managing Director and I make the decisions around here.”

“Well you are welcome to your opinion but let’s move one.”

“Thanks for your contribution. I’ll give it due consideration.” (Meaning “I won’t give it another thought.”)

As a leader it can be tough when a member of your team disagrees with or challenges you. It directly heightens your own doubts about your leadership ability. No one knows what to do in an uncertain situation. As a leader you don’t have any special powers to magically just know the best course of action. You’re just as much in the dark as everybody else. In the end however, you are the one that has to make the decision.

This is the crux of leadership.

Are you prepared to put your thoughts under the spotlight and allow others to tell you where they think you are wrong? It’s almost certain your team sees things about your plan that you don’t see. Who knows, they might be right. Your plan might be doomed to failure. Or it might just need to incorporate scenarios you hadn’t thought of. Regardless your plan will be better for allowing others to tell you what you think. You might not change it at all but you will go ahead knowing you had taken more aspects into consideration.

As I write this I can feel my own anxiety level rising. This is a wickedly difficult situation. It’s almost as if you are standing naked in front of your team and saying “This is me. Tell me if you think I’m OK.” Your team is just as uncomfortable as you are. Nobody wants to tell the King he has no clothes. Undoubtably the easiest path for your team members is to either agree with you or to say nothing. After all to raise a concern is to place their own insecurities in public view. What if they’re wrong? What if they are humiliated by the rest of the team? What if, like me the young teacher, are put in place by you?

Nobody wants to take the risk of conflict. So it is up to you to create a spirit of openness and risk taking by setting the example. You are no different from your team members. You have no special insight. But you are the leader. The only way to create a team like this is to have the courage to be vulnerable — to both yourself and your team.

It’s a tough call. It’s so very hard to do. But the rewards are out of this world.

In the next article in this series the role of conflict within a team and why it’s important that it is out in the open.