Enabling Diversity by Building a Culture of Constructive Conflict
The business results are in and they speak loud and clear. Diverse organizations are more successful than uniform ones. However, they can be challenging places to work in the early stages of cultural development because of the inherent conflict diverse perspectives bring. In order to create truly inclusive workplaces, leaders must learn to manage and leverage this conflict to bring out the best in people and the best outcomes for business.
Diversity brings different ways of thinking and approaching problems. From gender and race to neurodiversity and socioeconomic background, our experiences inform how we show up to work. This diversity delivers better collaboration and results but it brings sometimes very contrasting perspectives. This inherently results in more debate in the workplace and, arguably, more conflict. When managers and leaders know how to navigate conflict on their teams, they will begin to truly build a more inclusive culture and achieve results that only debate and discussion can bring.
If well-managed conflict can lead to diversity and inclusion the question becomes, how should it be achieved? Creating this philosophy and methodology in our workplaces requires leadership and communication. Here are some ideas I’d like to share that have helped me:
- First and foremost, assume positive intent. When there is conflict, there is a tendency to question the other party’s motivations. However, there is no way to have a productive conversation when we assume negative intent. It is acceptable for folx to have different priorities within a business and it is important to spell them out in a debate. But until proven wrong, assume positive intent. (I learned this in an explicit way at GitLab where it is a core value)
- Reframe conflict. Few people relish conflict in the workplace. However, that is because of the negative connotation it has and the negative emotions it brings up. I personally often felt a sense of shame whenever I experienced conflict because I saw it as a failure. However, given the many moving pieces in any business, it is inevitable to have conflict. Once we have assumed positive intent (see above :)), a disagreement is clearly an opportunity to either question our assumptions or come in closer sync with the colleague we disagree with. A win-win!
- Gain a deeper understanding of emotions and emotional triggers. Conflict often shifts the conversation from facts and dispassionate debate to emotions. As I mentioned above, I often felt shame and that made me act a certain way. A colleague of mine felt anger. Anger at being dismissed. It took a while for me to find that out about them. But once I knew that, it was logical to address upfront that conflict did not mean they were being taken lightly. So I recommend spending time and energy really understanding the personalities and backgrounds of the people on the team so when the sparks fly, they simmer down quickly and everyone can get back to productive business.
- Rules of conduct. Conflict, emotions and triggers are all part of any workforce interaction but inappropriate behavior can never be. Ensure the safety of all discussions by creating guidelines for debate - what is acceptable and what isn’t. It is equally important to be clear on who is the final decision maker. A concept I find extremely valuable is that of DRIs or Directly Responsible Individuals. The DRIs can have many collaborators but they are ultimately responsible for decisions and outcomes.
- Create an environment where employees feel seen and heard. Just because conflict is accepted and celebrated in a workplace does not mean anyone should feel unwelcome or threatened. Host regular conversations in groups and 1:1s to listen and ensure a positive environment.
- Lastly, but most importantly, celebrate the wins and normalize conflict in the workplace with clear communication. Articulate your philosophy about conflict and debate and socialize it with your teams. Be inclusive of other viewpoints and together create your own culture of constructive conflict :-).
Working at the CNCF - and the LF at large - has provided me with many opportunities for culture and diversity-building conflict that lead to business results.
To share an example, after a very challenging 2020, the team and I had different perspectives on what we could accomplish in 2021. I was new to the job and full of optimism and excitement about what we could accomplish. However, we’d also pushed through two virtual events back-to-back. We’d suffered the loss of a great leader in Dan Kohn. And we were all just getting to know each other. After many challenging conversations around what we had the resourcing for, my team and I spent much of December and January aligning on our objectives and ensuring there were ample resources. We went through a thorough OKR process that resulted in a publicly shared deck. Because of our process, we were also able to bring in the diverse perspectives of our board members and folx in the TOC. In the end, we are much better for it. We have a clear vision and plan of action. And I can only thank our culture of constructive conflict for it.