Two Charts That Show Some Conflicts in Top Leadership Are a Good Thing

Business people talking in meeting
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I recently came across this company mission statement. I am copying it here verbatim.

“To operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America, helping both our customers and booksellers reach their aspirations, while being a credit to the communities we serve.”

Except for the word “booksellers,” I couldn’t have guessed it was Barnes and Noble’s. It could be anyone’s.

I then went on to read Nike’s.

“Our mission is what drives us to do everything possible to expand human potential. We do that by creating groundbreaking sport innovations, by making our products more sustainably, by building a creative and diverse global team and by making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.”

Strategy is a trade-off. It’s about deciding what to do, and what not to do. Six questions every successful company must answer:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?
  5. What is most important right now?
  6. Who must do what?

Answering these questions is hard. It’s as hard as it is intellectually simple, because it requires difficult conversations and rigorous debates. And most executives prefer the comfort of their regular busyness. The questions are about strategy, no doubt. But to have real commitment demands passionate and messy dialogues among team members.

The real question to any leader is this: Will I be willing to endure the emotional pain to go through the human messiness of argument and truth-seeking? 

The Steep Price of Conflict Avoidance

Most of us find conflict uncomfortable, especially in the office setting. The default for many organizations is to be passive-aggressive. We go to a meeting, smile and nod at decisions that we disagree with. We then do little to support that idea we agreed to.

Such passivity is bad between two distant departments. But it is catastrophic when it occurs in the top management team. Why? Because by default, any decisions made at the top have recurring effects across several departments. Otherwise, the discussion shouldn’t have been at the top level. A typical C-suite discussion: The head of sales can’t raise a product’s price without suffering volume loss. She needs the head of R&D to dream up a new feature. The head of manufacturing also needs to deliver without flaws.

Alignment must start from the top, because people are smart observers of their own bosses. The moment managers sense there’s a lack of unity in the leadership team, they will stop collaborating wholeheartedly. After all, if their boss won’t push them to reach out and hold them accountable for their collective effort, why bother? This is how silos begin. Organizations fracture from the top.

But if passivity is a bad thing, isn’t too much head-on confrontation also bad? Along the continuum of artificial harmony at one end and mean-spirited personal attacks at the other, should leaders aim at some “ideal” conflict point?
Two Charts That Show Some Conflicts in Top Leadership Are a Good Thing -
How most people think about the relationship between conflict and performance.

The answer is a resounding no. There are two types of conflict. You should aim high for one, and low for the other.

Conflicts That Help and Conflicts That Hurt

Bill Campbell, “the trillion-dollar coach,” worked side by side with Steve Jobs to build Apple from near bankruptcy. He also worked side by side with Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt to build Google from a startup. He coached John Donahoe, CEO of Nike. He coached John Hennessy, former president of Stanford University. Campbell was a successful CEO himself at Intuit—the maker of TurboTax and QuickBooks.

He wasn’t shy of conflict. He was “aggressive and tenacious in giving negative feedback,” said Jesse Rogers, managing director of Altamont Capital Partners. When Jesse sent Bill the link to the website of his new company, Bill called immediately. “Your website is a piece of shit!” was how Bill said hello. He ranted about how Altamont’s website was not up to snuff. This was Silicon Valley, Bill said. You couldn’t be a successful startup here and have a shitty website!

The wakeup call worked because it “came from a place of love.” When Bill yells at you, Jesse said, it’s because he loves you and cares and wants you to succeed. Nike CEO Donahoe described it as “the power of love.” It was never about Bill. “Coming from him, it didn’t hurt when he told you the truth.”

Of course, Bill’s way of loving is unique. His tough message of candor, warmth, and respect is often laced with swearing and cursing. And it might have made some feel excluded or uncomfortable. But his effectiveness also points out where executives should strive when managing conflict: You should tolerate and even encourage cognitive conflict.

Cognitive conflict is task oriented. It focuses on judgmental differences about how best to achieve a common goal. It’s healthy when people hotly argue over an issue before a final decision is made. Cognitive conflict avoids groupthink. It taps into more diverse perspectives. And it correlates with better-quality decisions. Researchers have found that groups who experience more task conflict make better decisions because such conflict provokes a higher cognitive understanding of the issues.

But then research also shows leaders must minimize relationship conflict. This second type of conflict involves emotion rancor and personal disputes, which always lead to lower morale. They limit the information processing ability of the group; group members spend their time and energy focusing on each other rather than on the issues at hand.

Two Charts That Show Some Conflicts in Top Leadership Are a Good Thing -

Performance is highest when task conflict is high but relationship conflict is low.

In other words, a team must remember to keep a positive attitude toward one another while voicing their disagreements with others’ opinions. The key is trust. Winning teams are those that may not agree with others’ opinions, but they believe in each other’s intentions. They feel safe being candid. It all comes from a place of love.

Bringing your whole self to work

Business is never about business if you want to build trust. Successful leaders don’t separate people’s human and work selves. They simply treat every colleague as a whole person. That messy boundary of professional, personal, family, and emotions all wrapped up in one.

That’s the condition needed for team members to engage in productive, unfiltered conflict around important issues. And from such team meetings, they leave with clear-cut, specific agreement around decisions. That’s especially important when a team is dealing with non-routine tasks, which involve a great deal of problem solving and feature a high degree of uncertainty—the essence of strategy work.

This is how Indra Nooyi, the former chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo, focused her work. She wrote letters to her senior officers’ mothers to give them a report card on how their children were doing at PepsiCo. “Thank you for the gift of your child to our company,” she would begin. These letters opened the floodgate of emotions. Parents started communicating directly with Indra. They told their neighbors, relatives, and friends. Executives got emotional because their parents had never received such a letter. “This is the best thing that’s happened to my parent and the best thing that’s happened to me,” they’d say.

Executives must be able to put the collective priorities and needs of the larger organization ahead of those of their own departments. Otherwise, a top team would work like the United Nations, where people come together only to lobby for their constituents. That’s why Indra worked hard to generate a sense of commitment and loyalty at the top. This is how strategic clarity gets made.


Thanks for reading—and be well.

Two Charts That Show Some Conflicts in Top Leadership Are a Good Thing -

This article was co-authored with Angelo Boutalikakis, a Research Associate at IMD’s Center For Future Readiness.

Leave a Comment


  1. Kyle Sullivan

    While often avoided, conflict can also be a good thing indeed. It can create opportunity and encourage open-mindedness, as conflict often leads to deep conversations. Great read.

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