The best, most successful companies feature highly participatory cultures in which employees routinely identify problems and share and implement ideas. High engagement cultures take a lot of work—the right information, the right team structure, management commitment, training time, and more. But a key factor that is often overlooked is the need to create a safe environment in which people feel comfortable dealing with conflict, taking risks, and trying new ideas. This blog talks about why this matters and how to get there.
What is Culture?
Culture is “How we do things around here.” It is a system of shared values, beliefs, behaviors, customs, written and unwritten rules, and rituals. Largely set by the personalities and intentions of the founders/leaders (unless there is an intentional process), it determines how employees treat customers and each other.
Does culture matter? Yale professor James Baron studied several hundred Silicon Valley startups from the mid-1990s until 2002 and found that it’s much easier to get the culture and HR blueprint right from the beginning than to go back and try to change it later, and those that established a strong and healthy culture from the beginning had a better chance of long term survival. In addition, those that had a culture of engaging all employees for the long term (which he called “commitment” firms) performed better than those that focused rewards on a few star performers at the expense of the rank and file (called “star” firms).
Employee-owned and Great Game companies often create vehicles for broad participation such as teams, committees, and workgroups designed to share ideas and information and to make and implement decisions. These teams often work very well, but teams can also be prone to dysfunction. One very common dysfunction is the avoidance of conflict at all costs, leading to artificial harmony and creating organizational weakness and vulnerability because different viewpoints are not aired and second-best solutions can get accepted.
So one of the most important things a company must do to create an effective high engagement culture is to learn to deal with conflict productively. This enables different perspectives to be voiced, leading to more rigorous thought and better decisions (and avoiding group-think). People get to be heard even if their ideas don’t carry the day, so they are more likely to support the prevailing decision. Relationships are reinforced and innovation is encouraged.
A healthy decision making map such as the one below created by facilitator Sam Kaner, can start off with a narrow set of business as usual perspectives. By seeking to draw out divergent opinions, the map widens. People bring different approaches, creating a kind of “groan zone” where ideas conflict. A productive process will start to narrow these perspectives to create a new common understanding. The key is to understand that the discomfort of the groan zone is what lets you think in new ways.
To encourage healthy conflict, follow a few key principles:
- Emphasize common goals and shared purpose
- Encourage healthy debate via research and facts
- Encourage listening without judgement
- Do not tolerate personal attacks
- Be open to new ideas
- Leaders speak last
Inevitably, though, teams will face tough issues where people hold strongly conflicting views and emotions run high. Emerging research shows that the key to productive debate is to create a sense of psychological safety among participants. The authors of the best-selling book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High point to several key factors in creating safety:
- Start with heart – focus on what you really want
- Learn to notice when safety is at risk
- Make it safe
- Master your own stories and learn how to effectively share your own views. This involves thinking about why a rational, reasonable, and decent person would have this point of view.
- State your path
- Encourage others when they are emotional to share their own views and get back to the core ideas
- Move to action
Leaders have an essential role in creating a safe environment where people can say what they think and not feel attacked. They can ensure that all are heard rather than allowing a few voices to dominate, and they can ensure that new and unusual ideas are not immediately written off but are given a fair hearing. At the same time, people on the team need to learn to express their views in ways that do not threaten the safety of others. This means not just stating an opinion, but researching ideas and bringing facts to the table. People should use the most respectful interpretation of the motives behind what people are saying. Finally, it’s essential to end meetings with a path to action.
Several examples of systems that create safety include Chicago-based Tasty Catering’s core values, which are read before every meeting, creating a shared language for working out potential conflicts. Tasty Catering also uses author Jim Collins’ concept of “autopsy without blame” – a way of figuring out what went wrong in a situation without pointing fingers, so that the situation can be avoided in the future. New Belgium Brewing of Ft. Collins, CO encourages employees to read Crucial Conversations so that they have a shared framework about how to work out conflicts. PrintingForLess of Livingston, MT has a strict “no gossip” policy, instead requiring people to talk to one another directly to work out disagreements. And the members of the Zingerman's Community of Business are laser focused on providing great customer service, which gives their teams a strong incentive to work out any internal disagreements so that they can best serve customers.
Conflict is never easy, and most of us work hard to avoid it. But conflict gets us out of our comfort zones and enables us to create new approaches to business issues. Learning to make conflict work is essential to making ownership culture work.
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