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Harnessing conflicting views...

The avoidance of conflict leads to the emergence of problems, sometimes tragic in their consequences. Tom Peters famously noted that if leaders in organisations think everything is ok, then they probably aren't looking hard enough. Lasting improvement begins with developing an informed unfiltered understanding, at the level of the individual, the team, the organisation, and the wider system, and genuine growth arises from embracing discomfort. The world's most successful companies encourage the surfacing of conflicting, often going to great lengths to deliberately stimulate divergent views and ideas. 

Do leaders in your organisation proactively seek and welcome divergent perceptions? Does qualitative and quantitative information and data flow freely within your organisation and to and from external stakeholders?  Are the listening channels and sensing mechanisms in place and is the culture conducive to hearing? Is the need to manage risk and reputation balanced with a genuine desire and capacity to enable, encourage, and harness conflicting views?

I understand listening to unwelcome messages is often uncomfortable. Our biases often interpret what we may not want to hear as unfounded criticism and in our ongoing efforts to manage our own and our organisations reputations, we can inadvertently discourage employees from talking candidly about what they can see is not working well. Truth-tellers are labeled as troublemakers or whistleblowers and careers are often needlessly sacrificed on the altar of public relations and reputation management.

I know that speaking up in large organisations, especially public service institutions, rarely ends well. But having worked in and whistle-blown in the NHS, one of the world’s largest public service organisations, I also fully appreciate the many pressures on individuals and teams, sometimes invisible and undetected, that stop good people from calling out poor behaviours and shining a torch on harmful practices. Aligning yourself with the wrong message can come at great personal cost, emotional and financial.

The reality of our existence, the backdrop of our lives against which our actions are aligned, is that most of us are financially committed, with no desire to upset the material balance of our lives or our status. In the overwhelming majority of cases where a decision to display courage is perceived as risky, silence will prevail. Our deep-seated and biologically evolved response is to stick with the group. Our instincts are hard-wired to default to the safe option, being ostracised from the group was a death sentence for our primate ancestors.  

But staying quiet is seldom a neutral, benign, or harmless decision. When employees remain silent and silenced about important issues it is a recipe for the emergence of emotional, physical, financial, and reputational damage. I offer practical principles and techniques to help people harness conflict in visibly constructive and productive ways.  

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