Your Leadership Style: Consensus or Conflict?

Matthew MacLachlan

2 Nov 2016

In many Western countries, and particularly those influenced by the Harvard school of thought, we assume that leadership by consensus is the best way – or even the only way. Even in Eastern thinking, a leader is encouraged to avoid open conflict to be effective. But is leading by conflict a valid approach? What is your leadership style and how effective is it?

Your Leadership Style: Challenge the Ordinary

However, like a lot of assumptions, this simplistic approach may partly miss the point, and as a result, reduce the effectiveness of a team. The investment brokers, Investec are currently using a slogan in their latest ad campaign:

If two people are thinking the same thing, no one is thinking

They have taken the slogan, “Challenge the Ordinary” – they are trying to demonstrate that they take a different approach, which makes them unique. This slogan is equally relevant, however, to the way we work in teams.

If everyone agrees with everyone else and no one challenges a decision, innovation, creativity and new ideas are left outside the back door, and the team will stagnate.

Lazy thinking

Socrates challenged his contemporaries to dare to disagree, to reject the easy answer, to dispute accepted ways of thinking and behaving

Leadership through conflict is not a new idea. Socrates warned that humans are only too happy to go with the flow, avoiding conflict and accepting what goes on.

He challenged his contemporaries to dare to disagree, to reject the easy answer, to dispute accepted ways of thinking and behaving. Consensus is comfortable; agreement makes us feel good about ourselves, but, Socrates argues, it is lazy thinking that stifles progression.

Conflict is counter-intuitive. It is even more uncomfortable to disagree strongly with a leader. We are conditioned from a very early age to respect our “elders and betters”. Throughout our formal education, we discipline students who disrupt and we actively encourage conformity. We condition ourselves to measure success by agreeing with accepted thinking.

Disrupting the Status Quo

When you challenge accepted processes and patterns, great things happen. Alan Mullaly changed the fortunes of Ford by challenging the risk-averse culture, by increasing creativity, and demanding that old ways of doing things “just because” be scrapped and improved on.

Ironically by disrupting the status quo, Mullaly was able to create a more united leadership team, which had more in common with the workforce, and ultimately, prevented Ford Motor Company from bankruptcy.

We condition ourselves to measure success by agreeing with accepted thinking

If we agree with Socrates, we need to consider how to create a spirit of conflict, without making the team a place people do not want to work. Conflict by its nature is chaos, so it is not possible with too many ground rules. Rather than preventing chaos, the effective leader must learn to control and manage it. Most importantly the leader must ensure that the conflict is not aimed at a personal level, but is tightly focused on solving the everyday challenges of business, and you need to ensure that you do not encourage a bullying culture. Defining and honing your leadership style will help you to create the right environment for your team (and you) to thrive.

Most importantly the leader must ensure that the conflict is not aimed at a personal level, but is tightly focused on solving the everyday challenges of business, and you need to ensure that you do not encourage a bullying culture. Defining and honing your leadership style will help you to create the right environmet for your team (and you) to thrive.

Alan Mullaly (ex-CEO of Ford) changed the fortunes of Ford by challenging the risk-averse culture…and demanding that old ways of doing things “just because” be scrapped and improved on

Disruptive Leadership

However, we also need a re-brand. Conflict is too tied up with negative thought processes and difficult topics. What we are looking at is disruptive leadership. Disruptive leaders do not accept tried and tested but push for new ideas. They don’t accept the status quo; they insist on change, improvement, upgrading. If you settle, you get stuck; progress, the way forward, bigger, better brighter.

Disruptive leaders do not accept tried and tested but push for new ideas. They don’t accept the status quo; they insist on change, improvement, upgrading. If you settle, you get stuck; progress, the way forward, bigger, better brighter.

In controlled doses, disagreement is good, challenge is creative, chaos can lead to productivity.

This is not for everyone, and certainly, there is a cultural element here. But it is important to understand that while there are cultural preferences for certain leadership styles, challenging those preferences is not always a negative. There will, of course, be an element of change management: creating conflict deliberately without warning could be incredibly de-motivating. However, in controlled doses, disagreement is good,

There will, of course, be an element of change management: creating conflict deliberately without warning could be incredibly de-motivating. However, in controlled doses, disagreement is good, challenge is creative, chaos can lead to productivity.

It is important that, as leaders, we challenge every assumption and develop the flexibility to create the best cultural context for the teams we lead

Having a disruptive leader is tiring, and can be at times frustrating. It is also risky: a disruptive leader who is unable to see a good idea and grasp it and who only challenges will end up with nothing. The team will need much more hands-on support and encouragement to complement the creative disruption. It is also an approach that, ironically, needs consensus: the whole team needs to agree to play by these new rules or the concept falls apart.

It is also an approach that, ironically, needs consensus: the whole team needs to agree to play by these new rules or the concept falls apart.

I am not advocating that every leader should always be aiming for conflict. However, it is important that, as leaders, we challenge every assumption and develop the best leadership style and flexibility to create the best cultural context for the teams we lead – sometimes that may mean swimming upstream and creating chaos.



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