Many people shy away from conflict—it can be awkward and unpredictable—and in the boardroom, your peers could see it as combative if you too often “rock the boat.” But we need to shift our thinking on conflict—because boardroom conflict can be positive, and can be leveraged for change and innovation. In business, those that have leaned into tension and conflict have found that they have been able to push the boundaries and move forward.
John Winsor in a Forbes article points to Nike, and how they shifted their thinking around shoes. Initially, Nike designed shoes to prevent injury, but what their team started to realise after investing money into R&D was while they were investing money in prevention—injuries were still happening. In fact, a new trend of barefoot running was taking shape, and designers wanted to explore shoes that were not as bulky—but that instead gave a “free feel.” There was a huge conflict between what they were creating, what their goal was, and what consumers wanted. Fast forward—and the Nike Free was born.
Now, during that time, we can assume there were additional conflicts and tensions, between leaders who didn’t believe what R&D was proving to be accurate, or that consumers would actually purchase a shoe with less support. But because someone stepped up—took the lead—and stood behind a new idea, the company was able to fill a void in the marketplace.
“Discordance — not concordance — leads to the best ideas.”
It’s also important to state that while conflict can breed positive change—it should never fester— giving rise to toxic communication. Conflict must be productive and addressed. That’s because if tensions sit for too long without any resolution - just like in a relationship - it can breed negativity. However, when conflict is handled in a swift, constructive manner, it creates an overall better work experience. A healthy boardroom should be home to a ‘push and pull’ dynamic, where disagreement is welcomed and incorporated.
Disagreement can lead to better work outcomes.
Board members and executives exist to push each other - to drive one another to think outside the box. Going back to the Nike example - if no one started looking into the concept of free running, we would all still be wearing trainers that not only don’t prevent injury, but that also weakened our feet. But there was someone at the company who saw something different, and who encouraged their colleagues to think about running in a new way. Conflict can drive innovation, and spur creativity. None of us—investors, consumers, employees—benefit from being “yes men,” we need to offer alternative ideas and solutions to get people thinking in new ways.
Conflict helps us grow.
Yes, conflict is uncomfortable, but it is how we grow within our roles and ultimately—advance. By listening to others and remaining open to their feedback, we gain experience and evolve. On the other hand—offering an alternate viewpoint can be empowering! The saying “there is no such thing as a dumb question” applies to feedback and conflict as well—offering a different point of view or a new way of thinking is not a negative—it’s a positive. It shows that you’re thinking, that you care, and it can get you noticed. And, of course, being open to diverse ideas and perspectives is the best way to grow and evolve at work.
Conflict can breed higher work satisfaction.
When you aren’t afraid to offer a new viewpoint—or when you’re open to listening to others—it makes your position more enjoyable. Studies show that when individuals use conflict management techniques such as caring for others, win-win and fostering common interests, they’re ultimately happier at work.
Boards must create a space where members feel empowered and are encouraged to speak up and share new ideas. It’s the best way to move forward and create new, exciting change.