I spent a month ago with the President and top 150 of a major FMCG company. I was there as part of a culture change and leadership development program to promote more agility. Like most organizations, this one has realized that the external world is changing faster than they can adapt. The resultant lack of fit between products, processes and people and the customers they are there to serve causes fails: Underperformance, massive efforts for marginal gains, difficulties attracting the best talent and a drop in relevance.
The subject turned to conflict in senior management. Like many decent multinational organizations, senior leaders spend a lot of their time getting "alignment". Meetings end up being about gaining consensus with other managers rather than on choosing the next action that will serve the purpose of the business. People spend hours each week trying to guess what they manager wants and working out how to give it to them.
Whilst some alignment or 'buy in' is important to ensure energy flows to projects without resistance, I sense that in many companies it has become a major blocker to agility and adaptability. It takes so long to gain alignment that the ideas and strategies that result from all those interminable meetings are often out-of-date before they are even executed.
Wise leaders that are grounded in purpose and self-worth can commit to a plan without having to fully buy into it if they feel fully seen and heard - and that the team as a whole is ready to test the reservations and challenges as much as the solutions.
Worse, an excessive culture of alignment is often underpinned by a leadership style that promotes surface "niceness" (whilst lots of quiet blaming, shaming and complaining occur). In leadership, as in life, being "nice" is actually neediness in disguise. It is patterning, conditioned defenses - wanting to be liked and to look good - rather than solidity and strength. Being nice, being liked, being aligned will prevent us from sharing truth - and so it will prevent the organization from responding to changes in the outside world appropriately and with the speed and pace needed in the relentless world of today.
We cannot be nice and be true. We cannot serve the desires and foibles of our boss and be true to what our customers, partners and team members need. Just as we cant be a loving parent and give our kids what they want rather than what they need - even if they don't like us for limiting screen time, cookies and swearing.
Whilst I believe most leaders must develop way more compassion and kindness for customers and employees alike to be a 21st Century leader, I actively support them to break through being nice and to let go of needing alignment all the time.
We need a bit of dictatorship with all that democracy. We need discord and debate to tussle with complexity and to discover, in dialogue with equals no matter where they are in the hierarchy, what to do next with a strategy or plan. We can disagree with another's perspective without being unkind or unfeeling. We can criticize an idea without criticizing the person who had it. We can learn to not take things personally - and so welcome our ideas to be challenged without this impacting our core worth and value. This is strength. This is humility. This is transformational.
We might be 'right'. They might be. But in fast moving contexts, like the world is today, won't know what was the best fit until we try stuff, learn, fail and learn some more. We need Wise Experimentation to test ideas rapidly so we can feel our way to responses that work... for now at least. As research has shown, published in the HBR:
Teams that utilized conflict in their process consistently outperformed teams that focused on cohesion.
We cannot rely on what worked in the industrial-age. We cannot follow best-practice and hope everything will be OK. We need to explore what will work today and tomorrow. We need to ask better questions rather than become attached to 'my' answers. Then every execution is a way of testing hypotheses that come from those better questions. There may be no such thing as a bad idea but there are ideas that don't fit - and don't work. We need to spend much more energy on finding out which do and don't work - and much less on alignment and niceness. The world is moving too quickly for the perfect strategy. And the data will always be incomplete before we must choose.
At some point, those accountable need to make a decision and ensure everyone commits to it, even if they were not behind it originally. And then we need to Go Go Go without delay more delay. And for a time some people in the room may not like us for executing, for hustling, for making decisions without absolute consensus. We have to be OK with this dislike - which is simply once person's personality trying to defend against another's - if we do it for the good of the organisation.
We need more conflict not more alignment in our organizations. But we need conflict that is in service of the purpose not conflict that serves our personalities (AKA our defensive patterns).
Purpose should be the boss of the business, not the personalities of senior managers (or shareholders for that matter). And we all serve the purpose in whatever way we can.
This requires that our organization actually has a compelling, somehow 'true' and shared purpose.... but that is another story.
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