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Mindful : December 2015
December 2015 mindful 69 If you want excellence in the workplace, encourage your team to (respectfully) air their disagreements and frustrations. Don’t Just Play Nice When confronted with conflicts or difficulties at work, often we find our- selves seeking agreement, order, and “pleasantness.” At first glance this appears appropriate—even obvious. But more often than not, seeking harmony in order to promote a healthy workplace can diminish creativity, ham- per communication, and stunt growth over the long run. In his book Managerial Courage, management consultant and psychologist Harvey Hornstein concludes from his research that when pursing harmony in the face of conflict, we can find ourselves mistakenly anesthetizing our creative thinking and skillful- ness. “ What often emerges under the pressure to get along, be nice, and work and play well together is an uncontroversial package of rules about how to act and what to think, distinguished only by their blandness,” he writes. Instead, Hornstein sug- gests, in the face of conflict we need courage—not har- mony. “Courageous initiatives frequently spark conflict, disrupting organizational harmony,” he explains, “ When properly managed, conflict focuses choices, aids com- mitment, elevates thinking and sharpens issues. Produc- tive conflict, by continually juxtaposing organizational options, can be an enormous aid to organizational growth and progress.” Like placing plastic flow- ers in a motel room or offer- ing bland niceties in tense social settings, when we shy away from life’s difficulties we buy into a kind of “false harmony”—a phony sense of relief and pleasantness. Over time, that dullness can make us increasingly willing to ignore what needs attention, avoid what needs to be said, and discourage what needs encouraging. Rushing toward this kind of false harmony can have dire impact on how we develop effective teams. For example, Bob, a manager at a Wash- ington-based law firm, real- ized that a new billing system he’d implemented six months ago was continually over bud- get and missing deadlines. He was shocked to discover this, having hand-selected a team of exper ts who all seemed suppor tive and enthusiastic when he’d told them, “ We’re going to have to work hard to meet the tight deadlines on this project—so let’s cooperate and support one another.” As it turns out, everyone had complaints about the project from the outset, but no one felt comfor table expressing them. The project leader, for instance, said she felt she’d had “no say in selecting my team;” the attorney assigned to the task force considered the assignment “a distrac- tion and a demotion” from his typical duties; and the network supervisor felt that “no one ever listens to me so why should I even offer a viewpoint.” Bob brought this news to his boss, who, after a few moments of silence, responded: “I really only have one question, Bob: These concerns aren’t new, but somehow they are news to you. Why didn’t you sur face them earlier?” Bob had fallen prey to har- monizing for success rather than leading for excellence. Tensions, perspectives, and concerns that needed to be aired and examined early on—a natural stage for all teams to go through—were instead ignored, even dis- couraged, only to inter fere later as unspoken resent- ments, simmering frustra- tions, and active resistance. The lesson for Bob and for all of us: When teams shy away from conflict, they can wind up grappling with unresolved frustrations rather than producing great results. True success requires fearless harmony. By open- ing to difficulties, we can engage work’s paradoxes and conflicts fearlessly, not submissively—which, in turn, leads to honest, respectful communication and a team that genuinely understands and suppor ts one another. Whether we’re meditating in the Rockies or running a company in Seattle, we need not dumb down our inquisitiveness or just “get along.” Instead, we can live in fearless harmony, where challenges wake us up and conflict invites us to coura- geously lend a hand. ● Michael Carroll is the author of Fearless at Work. When we shy away from conflict, we can wind up grappling with unresolved frustrations rather than producing excellent results. practices at work