Cultivating professional disagreement: How constructive conflict helps leaders build relationships

We know quite a bit about what motivates professionals, and by far the most powerful motivators are intrinsic. Unlike external carrots or sticks, intrinsic motivators compel us from within. My personal drive to be better tomorrow than I am today is a much more effective lever than a bonus for improved performance. 

One of those intrinsic motivators is the desire to perceive our relationship with our leader as collegial rather than as boss/subordinate,  despite the fact that we have less positional authority. It is a fair bet than any professional you lead is motivated by their personal sense of professional identity, by their sense of achievement within their discipline, and by some form of acknowledgment by other professional peers of their capabilities.

We also know that new leaders all too often fall into a common trap. Because of their own intrinsic motivations around their own sense of professional identity, dozens of leaders have confided in me that they have held on too tightly to having to be right—especially when they were new and unfamiliar with wielding positional authority. So, falling back on the mastery they had in their area of competence, they tended to be overly directive—a polite way to say they became unintentional micro-managers.

Every lever of motivation moves in two directions and feeling micromanaged pushes down hard on our autonomy, mastery, purpose and significance levers. No one—not even the micromanager—wants to be micromanaged. Yet micromanagement persists in far too many teams.

One of the most difficult, but profoundly helpful, things a new leader can do is to provide for professional disagreement, even to cultivate it. In fact, it was the secret to success for one of the most revered leaders in US and probably world history.

Several years ago, I came across Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Although it’s a political biography, it’s also one of the best books on leadership anyone could hope to read— it’s exceptionally beautifully written, too. 

We all “know” Lincoln already from our schooling—how he lacked a formal education, how he failed in business, how his single term in the House of Representatives (where he showed the courage of his convictions to his own political peril) was considered a failure by his district, his loss to Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, and maybe even the extremely unlikely set of circumstances that accounted for his nomination as the Republican candidate in 1860.  (If you think the last few election cycles were nasty, you should read about this one.) He was elected president just weeks before South Carolina seceded from the Union, and by the time of his inauguration another six states had followed suit.  It’s safe to say, he stepped into the White House at a time of peril greater than any since its founding—even greater than the divides we see today.

With all this facing him, you’d think the first thing he would want to do would be to stock his cabinet with people he knew would support him, with friends he trusted. He did not.

Instead, he looked to several of the men who had just spent the better part of a year opposing him on the campaign trail, mocking him mercilessly, doing everything in their power to denigrate him out of the race— William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Simon Cameron and Edward Bates. These were men who believed and behaved as if they were smarter and better equipped to be president than their boss. His cabinet later included, Edwin Stanton, a man who had humiliated Lincoln in a court case some years prior and a Democrat who thought little of him. (At his deathbed, it was Stanton who would famously and prophetically say through his tears: “Now he belongs to the ages.”)

He knew these men didn’t like him or even respect him (although that changed dramatically over his presidency), but they were highly skilled and dedicated professionals. You can imagine the ego struggles, the disagreement on policy, the tension that must have filled their interactions. Lincoln actively wanted that disagreement to make sure he made the best possible decisions considered from a variety of perspectives. By the time of his assassination, this Team of Rivals, had developed an extraordinary degree of personal loyalty and even reverence for this man they had considered not much more than a rube.

It may seem counterintuitive but cultivating disagreement is one of the best ways to cultivate loyalty. But of course, you must commit to it and you must commit to handling the conflict that arises well. Lincoln behaved with incredible emotional intelligence while navigating, then managing, then focusing the turbulent personalities and intellects around him. He showed an astonishing capacity for empathy and respect or other people’s frame of reference. He (mostly) did not take the conflict personally — seeing it for what it was: a resource for him to use. He was quick to take blame and slow to take credit. He admitted his mistakes. When offense was taken or pride was wounded, he worked to repair trust in relationships. Granted, the hard path of loss, failure and tragedy of Lincoln’s life prepared him emotionally in ways most of us can never imagine, but he still chose his behavior strategically as well.

If you want a master class in managing conflict constructively, read Team of Rivals. You will not be disappointed.

If you want a quick and dirty way to start experimenting with cultivating useful conflict, try this: Speak last. While the team circulates ideas or offers input, try not to give positive or negative reactions, even with your body language.  Here are just two of many reasons for this. First, unless you have a high degree of trust in and with the team, if the leader speaks first, people will often align themselves to the boss or will position against the boss, almost reactively. That’s a good way to make sure ideas don’t get shared. Second, and just as importantly, letting others be fully heard is a powerful show of respect and professional courtesy. If I see you let Mary or Carl finish their thoughts, I’ll be more likely to share mine as well.

There are several interesting studies that show teams that allow for conflict tend to perform better and have more job satisfaction as well. It might be a step out of your comfort zone that is very much worth taking.