Executive Insights | January 2011 | By Robin Van Tan

Why Conflict Helps

While it may make for some awkward meetings, experts agree that a little bit of disagreement in the c-suite could be a good thing.
Disagreement among executives can be good for a business.
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Jim Amos Jr., CEO of frozen dessert concept Tasti D-Lite, does exactly one thing to discourage conflict among members of his c-suite: nothing.

“There is no progress without disagreement,” Amos says. “As long as there’s no extreme fear of failure, people will dig in and state their opinions. Then they’re not afraid to say what they truly believe, and that’s where really productive decisions come from.”

In fact, healthy conflict is exactly what enabled the concept to roll out a new store prototype in November. As Tasti D-Lite’s leadership council discussed the logistics at its weekly meetings, several varying points of view emerged and were evaluated.

As long as there’s a corporate culture that values transparency, competence, and mutual respect, Amos says, people can get as heated as they’d like—and the conflicts will ultimately present different solutions that CEOs can choose from.

“You turn the light on, and the cockroaches run,” he says. “I’m not so naïve as to believe that there aren’t politics that are played in everything, but I believe that our culture doesn’t mesh with people who would undermine anyone’s character or disagree to benefit themselves at the expense of others.”

Management experts tend to agree. They say disagreement among different members of the c-suite isn’t necessarily a bad thing—so long as it’s handled correctly.

“A certain amount of conflict about how a company works and could work better is actually pretty functional,” says Nate Bennett, professor of management at Georgia Tech University. “Savvy CEOs are able to recognize the difference between that and interpersonal conflict.”

While it’s immediately obvious when some conflicts are personality-based, the distinction isn’t so clear-cut at other times.

“Try to make sure the conversation stays focused on facts, not personalities,” Bennett says. “If people have to rely on data about the business, data about competitors, [or] data about the industry, it becomes evident pretty quickly if they have something of substance or not.”

CEOs also should do their best to minimize opportunities for unproductive disagreements to crop up in the first place. It can be as simple as clearly outlining the roles of each member of the c-suite from the onset, before conflicts arise.

“That way the COO knows what they own, the CFO knows what they own, and so forth,” Bennett says. “It’s fine for other members to offer opinions and suggestions, but it’s very clear at the end of the day who makes the decision.”

Management experts also recommend reiterating the mission statement when disagreements arise. That way, everyone will make sure to stay focused on it.

“It’s always a good idea to go back to your core mission and say, ‘Is this consistent with that? Is this in the interest of what we’re really trying to do here?’” says Ron Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont-McKenna College in California.

Another strategy involves encouraging each party to consider several different solutions instead of fixating on just one.

“One of the mistakes groups often make is they too early seize on one or a very small number of alternatives,” Bennett says. “The exec who’s picked the alternative can end up feeling like they have to advocate for their choice, and then it becomes a contest of who’s going to win. You want to avoid that.”

When execs find merit in three or four different solutions, they’re more likely to see the value in plans advocated by others in the group.

“It forces them to continually be open to what could be other strong alternatives rather than narrowly focusing in on one,” Bennett says.

It also encourages compromise among the different solutions presented.

“You can say, ‘I’m going to go with this aspect of Plan A but devote resources to further developing this other idea that came from Plan B,’” Riggio says. “That can help minimize unhappiness among the group and lead to the best solution for the company possible.”

Of course, turning conflict into something productive isn’t just about what should be done when disagreements arise. It’s also about what shouldn’t be done.

While chief executives might be tempted—or pressured by their c-suite—to voice an opinion on a subject as soon as a conflict arises, that often is not the smartest strategy, experts say.

“It’s fine for other members to offer opinions and suggestions, but it’s very clear at the end of the day who makes the decision.”

“Once you weigh in, everyone else involved is now going to try to figure out how to align themselves to your decision,” Bennett says. “It can really change the conversation. … That may not always be a good thing.”

Rather than jumping into the conversation immediately, each member of the c-suite involved in the conflict should be able to fully voice his opinion. The chief executive should then take time to analyze the data presented and their stance on it before siding with anyone, Riggio says.

It’s essential to stay unemotional throughout the entire discussion.

“One thing you can do if you feel yourself or other members of the group getting too emotionally invested is to call a time out,” Riggio says. “Take a day or two to mull the issue over when you’re not in the heat of the moment, then regroup later to take a fresh look at all possible solutions.”

The potential for conflict isn’t restricted to the c-suite; disagreements can get even more heated when they occur between franchisees and the corporate team. But experts say it’s important to remember that the same rules still apply.

Another move that can go a long way is letting franchisees know that corporate is genuinely interested in their concerns.

“It’s important to listen to them and hear them out,” Riggio says. “Make an effort to evaluate each individual’s circumstance to see if it warrants an exception to the rules that are set out for the chain.”

Breaking from bureaucracy when warranted—known to management experts as constructive deviance—can empower franchisees. As a result, they feel valued and more invested in the success of the entire concept.

“It’s essentially the same approach I would recommend taking with any conflict,” Riggio says. “It’s about really trying to understand someone else’s perspective—where they’re coming from, what’s motivating them, and how you can come up with a solution that supports your overarching goal.”