Building a culture that honors productive conflict

On the heals of working with some school leaders on conflict, I read and listened to these interesting pieces that connect to our work as educational leaders.  First, a piece appeared on Brain Pickings, David Foster Wallace on Leadership.  In the article and podcast, Debbie Millman reads about leadership from the writings of David Foster Wallace, a writer and professor who received the MacArthur Fellowship but died at an early age from suicide.  The second article was in Tools for Learning Schools on Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict.   In this piece, Anthony Armstrong looks at how to address conflict in school communities.  Finally, Krista Tippett’s (@kristatippett) On Being interview with Padraig O Tuama entitled, Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both,  inspires a spiritual and holistic approach to think about conflict, relationships, and resolution.

While each of these articles covered different aspects of culture and conflict they all addressed the importance of facing conflict in open and honest ways, a fundamental quality of strong leaders.  As educators, we know that conflict is often at the surface begging for our attention.  Conflict can result from challenging relationships between different community members or differences in philosophy, goals, and desired outcomes.  As leaders, we receive little training in how to build a strong, inclusive culture that nurtures productive conflict.  For example, orchestrating productive and difficult conversations is a skill we tend to learn on the job rather than receive professional training from knowledgeable experts.  While trial-by-fire experience is unavoidable and necessary, we need high-quality training and feedback to improve, so that we can effectively lead or participate in our communities of learning.

David Foster Wallace describes a leader as someone whose

real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

He goes on to say that real leaders make it possible for us to reach beyond our “limitations, selfishness, and laziness.”  From his description, I see real leaders as people who understand and value the “other.”  In that way, when situations arise that present with conflict, they are committed to resolution with everyone’s best interest at heart.  They work on behalf of honoring personal integrity, boundaries, and feelings.  When in the presence of effective “real leaders” I have experienced profound confidence that conflict resolution is a high priority.

I liked all three of these pieces because they focused on embracing conflict as a form of energy that can move a community into a better place.  In learning how to embrace conflict, the author of Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict, Anthony Armstrong, discussed the importance of three ingredients illustrated in the graphic below.  These three ingredients come from the work of Williams and Hierck (Authentic alignment in a PLC: Moving from compliance to commitment, in press).


The three ingredients are: (1) having a shared purpose; (2) adopting norms that guide work towards a purpose; and (3) using protocols for when norms are not followed successfully.

In my own work, I have seen leadership teams struggle moving through conflict because they have not adopted a shared purpose or norms that guide their work.  Too often, the team is caught unprepared to navigate through conflict towards a resolution or outcome that works to everyone’s advantage.  A leadership question might be: how can we turn a conflict into a learning experience for everyone?  Assuming norms have been established, a group can sometimes find itself bogged down in their work because a norm has been violated.  If the group fails to use protocols for addressing behaviors that violate norms, it might be difficult to get back on track.  Respectfully naming behaviors that derail a process can be a powerful way for groups to address conflict and transform themselves into a high-functioning team (see the work of Patrick Lencioni on the five dysfunctions of a team).

In the article, Armstrong also writes about the importance of good communication and leadership to build a culture “that facilitates productive conflicts.” (p. 3)  To be successful at this work, the authors propose that all stakeholders need to feel invested in designing solutions to resolve conflict.  To invest in this work, the leader has to value establishing a collaborative, high-functioning team in which members trust one another.   While Armstrong provides technical solutions to the challenge of engaging in healthy, productive conflict on teams, it is more likely that the challenge is an adaptive one requiring an astute leader.

Padraig O Tuama, the leader of Corrymeela, a community of people devoted to working for peace and reconciliation, shares his keen insights into how differences can be resolved and people live and work in harmony.  In the interview he says:

And I think that is one of the things that, for me, spirituality as well as conflict resolution is about. There’s — so much of things are saying, “I wish things were different.” “I wish I were somewhere else.” “I wish this were not happening.” And what David Wagoner says is, “The place where you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”

He refers to the poem by David Wagoner, Lost.   The words and ideas in Wagoner’s poem challenge the reader to understand the power of being present.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.

– by David Wagoner

In the interview, Mr. Tuama goes on to explain the meaning of the powerful stranger and being in the present.

And powerful strangers might be benevolent, but only might. Powerful strangers can also be unsettling and troubling. And powerful strangers can have their own hostilities, and have their own way within which they cause you to question who you are and where you’re from. And that is a way within which, for me, the notion of saying hello to “here” requires a fairly robust capacity to tell the truth about what is really going on. And that can be very difficult.

Speaking the truth is such an important part of healthy, productive conflict that focuses on resolving the tensions between polar opposites.

Mr. Tuama has some penetrating things to say about the tension between understanding the other and agreeing with the other.  He says:

And I suppose one of the things that being closeted for many years helped, actually — not that this is good advice, but it is wisdom, retrospectively — it helped me to understand some of the dynamics that were happening underneath the kind of public things people said in order to then think, when it comes to having conversations about anything that divides us, that understanding itself is a really wise thing. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing.

When things divide us, the situation in many moments of conflict, we need to listen deeply and try to understand the other person without projecting our own inner feelings on the person.  We need to remember that understanding does not mean agreeing.  How can we best express our understanding, especially if we don’t agree?  Mr. Tuama suggests that asking good questions, like “can you help me understand this,” can be one way to explore the level of understanding we have for the other.

And often, our public discourse, whatever the issue that’s dividing us, it needs a wise framing. It needs careful questioning. And it needs a way within which we can speak about these things, recognizing that words have impact. And often, if people use unwise words, they return to their intention. “Well, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that.” Without paying attention to impact.

While each of these three pieces is unique in its approach to suggesting how leaders address conflict, my attempt was to knit them together to tell a powerful story about the value of creating teams that can see their way through healthy, productive conversations about difficult situations.

I would strongly recommend these pieces if you lead an organization that struggles with productive conflict.  It might open up some windows for understanding how to do this important work.

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