Executive Director's Blog: Consensus, Conflict and the Leader’s Responsibility

Organizations that overemphasize consensus drive out talent, underperform, and lose money, all the while maintaining a harmonious facade.  

Walking the halls of an organization that overemphasizes consensus, things appear to be fine:  No one is arguing.  Employees are smiling and nodding in unison.  The organizational Kool-Aid has been spiked with consensus and everyone is drinking.  At a surface-level, who can argue that a group of people on the same page will be more effective than a group of people in conflict?  But unless the conflict has already taken place and resulted in this consensus, your organization could well be harmoniously running off a cliff. 

Consensus at all costs

The best organizations I’ve been a part of consisted of individuals who possessed the following attributes:

  • Passion
  • Intelligence
  • Creativity
  • Conviction
  • Integrity
  • Commitment

Not every member of the organization possessed all of these attributes, and even those who did possessed them to varying degrees, but these attributes were well represented across the organization as a whole. 

Take a moment to think of someone you know who possesses most of these attributes.  If a colleague doesn’t come to mind, perhaps it’s a family member or friend.  Now imagine how that person would behave as a team member in your organization.  Would they eagerly yield to the organizational idea du jour?  Would they never raise their voice to make a point?  Would they stay silent rather than question a plan they had serious doubts about? 

Let’s say your library had the resources to launch one new program and you had narrowed down various possibilities to two finalists.  Half of the team supports program A and half, including the person you have in mind, supports program B.  How would your person respond if those supporting program A declared that their program should be the one to launch with only the flimsiest of supporting arguments?  Would your person accept this without a strong rationale?  Would they yield their own position, a position they are convinced is superior, without debate in order to preserve organizational harmony?  Of course not. 


We all know that conflict can be good or bad, constructive or destructive.  Bad conflict is conflict for selfish reasons:  Ego, greed, laziness, self-interest.  Good conflict is the conflict of ideas.  “Program A will have 8 main benefits, while program B will have 5.”  “But program B is core to our organization’s mission, while program A is only tangentially related.”  If you have two groups of employees arguing in this way, congratulations:  You are going to outperform your peer organizations every time.  Why?  Because whatever position ultimately emerges as the winner will have been fully (and sometimes loudly) vetted by employees who are engaged, passionate, committed and who are actively demonstrating conviction.

The type of person who yields to consensus at all costs usually lacks these attributes.  If you are not passionate about your job and the customers you serve, what difference does it make which direction the organization chooses to go?  If you are not creative, there’s little chance you’ll come up with an innovative approach to a problem that traditionalists might view as disruptive.  If you lack conviction and commitment, it’s easy to be easygoing.  And if you lack integrity, you can change your beliefs as easily and often as you change your clothes.  Leaders should weed out employees lacking these qualities, replacing them with candidates intentionally selected because they have a track record of exhibiting these qualities.

Do so and watch how quickly your organization flourishes.

Creating a Culture of Constructive Conflict:  The Leader’s Responsibility

In my career I’ve been blessed to hold positions that have taken me into hundreds of libraries.  I’ve seen libraries that exhibited healthy conflict and I’ve seen libraries that exhibited unhealthy conflict.  But by far, the most common library culture I’ve encountered is a conflict-averse culture.  Conflict-aversion is dangerous.  The crucial conversations not being had, whether due to fear or a lack of passion, creativity, conviction, integrity or commitment, are the conversations that yield smarter decisions.

A leader casts a long shadow over an organization.  As the leader, you must set the example you want to see others follow.  If you demonstrate discomfort when encountering conflict, or punish those who openly disagree, the organization will quickly take note.  On the other hand, you can encourage healthy conflict by exhibiting it yourself and rewarding others when you see them engage in it.  Your organization will notice and, to the extent to which they are comfortable, will emulate your behavior. 

Here are some practical tips for creating a culture of healthy conflict--

  • Talk about conflict with your organization.  At an all-staff meeting talk about constructive conflict and the benefits you’ve seen it produce.  Tell a personal story about a time you engaged in a constructive conflict - preferably a story where your idea did not win the day - and share how you felt in the moment when your idea was not selected (frustrated), and then, later, how you felt when you realized the good reasons your idea wasn’t selected (relieved).  Emphasize that this process and these emotions are normal and not to be avoided.  Conflict isn’t about individuals winning and losing; it’s about arriving at the best decision for the organization.
  • Share an open debate.  The last time I checked, organizations face no shortage of difficult decisions at the Leadership Team level.  Choose a relevant debate that you have refereed in your leadership team meeting.  Let your leaders know what you are up to and why so they are not caught off-guard.  Then share which choice was made and why.  Admit that you can’t predict the future, but that you feel you made the best choice possible because you and your team openly disagreed, but kept talking, and in doing so sharpened your rationale for making the decision you finally arrived at.  By sharing that the Leadership Team has disagreements, but ultimately rallies behind whatever decision is made, you signal to the rest of the organization that this is a behavioral norm you endorse.
  • Destigmatize mistakes.  When people act irrationally, fear often has something to do with it.  If someone feels that they will be criticized or penalized for making a mistake, they are unlikely to admit they’ve made one.  This leads to unhealthy conflict, as an individual or a team will stubbornly defend an approach because they fear the organizational consequences of admitting they got it wrong.  This is self-preservation masquerading as conviction.  As a leader, your responsibility is to create a culture that accepts mistakes.  You don’t want to reward mistakes, but you want to acknowledge that they are a normal byproduct of an organization that is striving for greatness.  Initiate a “mistake of the week” program.  Encourage managers at all levels of the organization to share a mistake they’ve recently made.  It could be something they forgot, a communication gaffe, a presentation that missed the mark, or an idea that turned out to be a real clunker.  The point is to demonstrate that (a) you are human, (b) you aren’t afraid to admit your mistakes, and (c) that the mistake led to something better.  Follow up your mistake of the week with what you learned from it.  These don’t have to be career-altering epiphanies; in fact, they will often be some variation of “and so after that, I’ve decided to try plan B.”
  • Reward conflict.  You read that right.  Especially in conflict-averse organizations, you need to create incentives for those who are willing to engage in healthy conflict.  Gimmicks are okay.  I worked with a library that had a long-standing “bacon saver” award that rewarded employees who “saved our bacon” by spotting an issue before it was too late, or pointed out the flaw in a plan before it went into effect.  While this behavior isn’t explicitly conflict, it emphasizes a questioning culture and questioning (for the right reasons) is the first step toward achieving constructive conflict.
  • Establish ground rules.  Conflict is uncomfortable for many people.  Depending on a person’s upbringing, their experience of conflict may have been infrequent and unconstructive.  Or worse, their experience of conflict may have been all too frequent, culminating in domestic violence.  All of this is to say that conflict in the workplace, even if well-intentioned, can elicit a strong fight-or-flight response.  So it is critical that you establish clear ground rules for engaging in constructive conflict.  Rules like:  “Give your coworker an opportunity to finish speaking before responding” or “Repeat back your coworker’s perspective in your own words.  Ask them if you got it right.”  Limit the rules to 5 or less.  Focus on rules that emphasize mutual respect.  Place them on placards in meeting rooms.  Recite them at the beginning of team meetings.  Add them to job postings so you attract candidates who share these values (and repel candidates who do not).  The ultimate goal is to inculcate these ground rules into the fabric of your organization to create a culture where coworkers routinely engage in constructive conflict, sometimes intensely, while preserving a mutual respect.
  • Tiebreaker.  In any healthy organization, there are instances when groups or individuals with opposing viewpoints cannot agree on a path forward.  In these cases it is the leader’s responsibility to play tiebreaker.  This means that they must hear both sides, choose one, and make it clear to both that (a) the side chosen bears the responsibility of success and (b) the side not chosen is expected to support the other side.  Perhaps even more important than making these difficult choices, the leader absolutely must monitor the initiative and hold both sides accountable (one side for succeeding and the other side for supporting).  Without accountability, both sides will view the leader’s decision as nothing more than choosing favorites.

The ROI of Constructive Conflict

An organizational culture of constructive conflict is transformative.  It is impossible to quantify the impact of a culture in which individuals question, challenge, debate, and ultimately arrive at a consensus as a matter of course.  Decision-making is smarter because it is based on the merits of an idea, not the ego, apathy or parochialism of individuals.  Innovations occur more frequently because the organization is filled with passionate, creative, intelligent individuals who exhibit conviction, integrity and commitment.

A healthy organization is not quiet.  Nor is it filled with amenable bobbleheads eager to agree to anything.  As a leader, don’t be lulled by a harmonious facade into thinking that your organization is healthy and successful.  Look at the measurable indicators of health and success.  How do you rank compared to your peers?  Are you making or losing money?  How many awards has your organization won?  How many innovations has your organization contributed to your industry?  These objective metrics will confirm whether your organization’s consensus has been earned through constructive conflict or is the result of conflict-aversion.

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