C, as in… Cohesion
By Frédéric SOS - November 11th 2019
"Despite it all, we do get on well!"
The atmosphere was pretty tense for this first meeting with the all-male senior management team of a construction company renowned for its strong regional ties and a level of expertise that gives it an inside track on local historical monument jobs.
About ten years ago, this company started to overcome its chaotic past by installing a new management team that seemed capable of righting the ship. However, major projects, won as part of a bold differentiation strategy combined with a powerful commercial push, "suddenly dried up", all the while monopolizing resources other activities were sorely lacking. The company was undergoing an abrupt about-face: the optimistic enthusiasm that had characterized the end of the previous year had given way, less than 10 months later, to a somber resigned outlook.
The exchanges were harsh, with inuendoes and reproaches fueling tension that due only to my presence didn't boil over. The Managing Director's verdict, delivered as a wrap-up to our discussions, was scathing: this team had failed, wasting potential he had built and sold to shareholders and that now could not be exploited. His conclusion took me aback: "Despite it all, we do get on well!".
The subsequent individual interviews underscored a culture based on morale; meetings had above all been considered "uplifting", providing a forum to showcase shared interests and convergent opinions. New team members were inducted by personal invitation. Each interviewee wound up admitting a perception of doubt, disagreement and even concern, as of their hiring, yet with no inclination to upset the good vibes of such spirited gatherings, "rare in the construction industry" and deemed vital to both team and company efficiency. The Managing Director's second-in-command, a young brilliant Site Manager with a top-drawer education, divulged the skepticism he felt "from the outset" regarding the strategy. Surprised by this revelation, I asked him what prompted his support to a point of not raising objections when the strategy was deployed: "I was onboard to avoid conflict and out of loyalty to my Managing Director!", cited as a truism even though he had since recognized the disastrous consequences of this attitude. An upcoming post will focus on how to conceive loyalty within a management team.
The end of this story lacks a punch line, since my role was limited to shaping the context to facilitate this subsidiary's integration into the Group as seamlessly as possible.
Nonetheless, this team's members were all accomplished and dedicated to the cause; my reading is that they fell victim to the confusion raised between cohesion and collegial relations.
In contradiction with widely-held belief, confrontation does not necessarily lead to conflict; it is not synonymous with clash, even though the two notions are often merged. A clash flares up around a power struggle and an attempt at domination or hierarchization within a given system.
Confrontation, which illustrates constructive intention, operates as the exact opposite of a clash. This dichotomy is far from being a recent discovery. Zeno of Elea (dating back 400 B.C.) invented - according to Aristotle - the Dialectic, this form of reasoning that seeks to zero in on truth by successively defending opposing theses. Plato turned Dialectics into a science based on confronting several positions in order to reach beyond opinion (or the so-called doxa) and achieve true knowledge, an understanding of how things work. Some of us surely recall "The Banquet of Plato", in which the author describes the successive discourses of Socrates and fellow participants during a banquet in search of a definition of Love. Speaking of love, what chances would you give a couple that has never experienced confrontation along their path?
In reality, confrontations are an essential part of the quest to forge agreement, common ground and a meeting of the minds, in particular within a managerial team. Remember, the goal is not necessarily to build consensus among all participants, but instead to consolidate the decision-making process and enlighten the actual decision-maker (see my post "D, as in… Decision").
It is therefore counterproductive, even dangerous, to purposely avoid these moments of heated debate, which characterize highly efficient teams over the long run. I'm sometimes baffled by the action objectives ascribed to a Team Building exercise, which according to the terms of a recent proposal addressed to a young company's management team are intended to "lubricate team operations and smooth out the rough edges".
Smoothing out rough edges only benefits those incapable of making decisions and looking for cover in unanimity or weak consensus, or the domineering type (without going as far as "malignant narcissists") seeking subservience or dependence from their "subjects", or else the "nice guy" who loves the management team like "frat brothers", which brings us back to our present example.
The reliance on heated debates, provided they are conducted in a spirit of mutual respect yielding justifiable positions and devoid of bullying, remains in my opinion a fundamental indicator of an effective managerial team.
Along these lines, seeking out contradictory views often proves to be much more useful to the manager than settling for sycophantic "loyal subjects".