Leaders Should Engage In Principled Conflict

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February 25, 2019

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Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

As widely reported, before John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress, passed away recently, he shared some thoughts in his final statement to America.  One of those missives was the following:

  • My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler.  We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death….

The same idea of mutual respect during intense debate was described by Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor in their 2015 book, Equity, Growth and Community: What the Nation Can Learn from America’s Metro Areas, as “principled conflict.” 

In using that term, Benner and Pastor were not referring to the idea of conflicts over principles, but rather to the principles of conflict: that struggles should be waged with integrity and that it is possible to directly address real conflicts in goals, objectives and values in a way that also recognizes the need to sustain long-term relationships.

Indeed, the authors Lester and Reckhow assert that any progress toward equity is driven by “skirmishes,” and it is those conflicts between constituencies that are often instrumental at identifying issues in need of resolution.  Benner and Pastor suggest that although conflicts often remain just conflicts, they can also lead to uncomfortable issues being raised and addressed in a more collaborative framework. 

The key question for leaders is when does an issue get stuck in entrenched differences, and when is it able to move forward positively and collaboratively?

Much has been written about the use of “principled negotiation” as a way of leveraging the principles of your opponent to win a negotiation.  In their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton suggest using objective criteria and scientific information to help bridge the gap between adversaries.

They advance the following four guidelines for principled negotiation:

  • Separate the people from the problem. 
  • Focus on interests not positions.
  • Invent options for mutual gain.
  • Insist on using objective criteria.

They suggest that if the other party is pressuring you to accept a standard that you view to be illegitimate, and if he or she refuses to listen to reason, don’t give in; just walk away.  But, many social purpose and business leaders, of course, are not a position of retreating – they must face differences in their organizations head on, and often quickly.

In Pastor’s most recent book, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, he traces the rise and fall and resurrection of California, and makes the case for honestly engaging with one another in order to address our economic and generational challenges, renewing our commitment to public investments, and cultivating social movements and community organizing. 

“How do we learn to turn to one another rather than away, to engage civically rather than withdraw in cynicism, to embrace what’s new rather that cling to what’s old,” asks Pastor.  “This is the challenge facing Americans – and the real measure…will be how we address it as a nation.  Ultimately, the country’s political health will not be improved by cable news spats but rather by organizing communities, lobbying policy makers, and persuading new leaders to run for public office.  Achieving change will require purpose and passion but also patience.”

Principled conflict, mutual respect and patience – all critical skills for leaders hoping to resolve disagreements and differences.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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