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The Wall Street Journal - The High Cost of Avoiding Conflict at Work

By Patrick Lencioni - February 2014

Originally publishing The Wall Street Journal. 2/14/14

It’s time to kill a common myth: Executives who avoid workplace conflicts get ahead. Instead, their advancement often stalls.

A well-liked senior vice president at a big health-care company lost a key promotion and left in 2012 because he never disagreed with colleagues during meetings. The man’s failure to manage conflict derailed his career, recalls David Dotlich, a leadership and succession coach. His research has identified “eagerness to please” as one of the top reasons that executives fail.

Dean Andrew V. Abela, head of the business school at The Catholic University of America. Ed Pfueller/The Catholic University of America

Keen to innovate faster, employers increasingly choose bosses “astute at dealing with conflict rather than ducking it,” says Judith Glaser, an executive coach and author of the new book, “Conversational Intelligence.”

And with more businesses relying on teamwork, top managers’ conflict-resolution skills are in greater demand, adds Theodore Dysart, a vice chairman of Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., a major executive-recruitment firm.

Southwest Airlines Co. leaders wanted to shake up what they viewed as a culture of “artificial harmony” among staffers. The company now promotes middle managers to executive positions partly based on their ability to spark conflict among staffers, says Elizabeth Bryant, its vice president of training. During a five-week training program, these high-potential managers learn to foster vigorous but respectful internal debates.

It’s not that firms want contentious leaders, but those who retreat from confrontation tend to postpone hard decisions and allow problems to fester, according to Ms. Glaser. “The only thing worse than engaging in conflict is to not do so,” says Patrick Lencioni, president of The Table Group Inc., a management consultancy, and author of ten books. “You don’t make good decisions.”

You can strengthen your stomach for conflict, however.

Some executive coaches encourage their clients to practice taking a stand during meetings. Mr. Lencioni included such role playing in a two-day workshop he conducted last August for the leadership team of The Catholic University of America’s new business school. The sessions made Dean Andrew V. Abela realize that he always tried to appease colleagues rather than make tough choices.

“I was brought up to be very polite. That brought me to avoid or minimize conflict,” Dr. Abela recollects. “I was afraid that somebody would blow up.”

Following the workshop, the dean says he began to openly challenge counterproductive proposals from associates. One result: the business school will soon revamp its liberal arts course requirements – a controversial move. Dr. Abela sought extensive faculty feedback about the proposal, but did not worry about getting everyone to agree.

Stay cool and do not take disagreements personally, management experts suggest. In effect, disagree without being disagreeable, according to Ron Kaplan, chief executive of Trex Co., a manufacturer of backyard decking systems.

Too often at his employer, people choose to be nice instead of direct, Mr. Kaplan continues. “I say, ‘Are we having a sé ance or running a business?'”

For managers who simply aren’t open to outside input, coaches recommend listening with an open mind — and empathy.

Ms. Glaser recommended this approach to Henna Inam, an ambitious marketing manager at a unit of Novartis AG. Ms. Inam says back then, she was so driven to launch products quickly that she ignored her lieutenants’ views. “I told them the best plan — and that was usually mine,” she remembers.

Because her aggressive style squelched dissent, co-workers “worked around me,” Ms. Inam explains. Things slowed down “because people weren’t in the (same) boat.”

Coached by Ms. Glaser, the middle manager decided to seek and carry out certain employees’ ideas. “There was more healthy conflict,” she says. Ms. Inam soon won her first executive role at Novartis. She left in 2010 to start a business, coaching female leaders.

A New York advertising executive used a different tactic to embrace conflict while negotiating her pay with a potential employer last year. She says she silently repeated a lesson from her career coach: “When you are feeling uncomfortable, you are doing the right thing.”

So, the woman rejected the small ad agency’s modest initial offer and instead demanded an equity grant and cash bonus. Agency officials accepted.

In the past, “I would have taken what they first offered me,” the new executive vice president says. “I was very focused on being liked.”

When possible conflicts arise, you also should find a constructive solution for you and your employer. The gambit recently worked for a Canadian vice president of a major book publisher.

The self-described introvert used to stay away from conflict for fear of hurting colleagues’ feelings. As a result, he didn’t complain about 60-hour workweeks that left him feeling undervalued. He changed his mind after his executive coach pointed out that the publisher might benefit if he described his professional needs in a positive manner.

Last spring, the man got marching orders to promote 13 new books rather than his usual six. He walked into his boss’s office and calmly declared, “This (assignment) is too much. I don’t think I can do it,” he recalls.

The boss agreed, and immediately reassigned several titles. “The sky didn’t fall,” the vice president notes. “That was kind of a great moment.”