Diversity of opinion fuels innovation. It’s what allows entrepreneurs to question sacred cows and make swift, smart decisions that keep their budding businesses at the cutting edge. However, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, just 17 percent of workers “strongly agree” that their companies value open communication.
Open communication is the key ingredient that makes constructive conflict possible. If employees don’t feel comfortable sparking debates and speaking their minds, startups ultimately miss out on key ideas that will fuel their growth and success.
I’ve learned that people feel empowered to present alternative viewpoints only if their work culture encourages it. This first became apparent when I was in the military. My commander did not take criticism well, so we never dared to question his decisions. One day, he passed down an order we all knew was a big mistake. He was putting our lives on the line — yet none of us felt comfortable speaking our minds.
With stakes this high, I felt compelled to take action. When I brought up our concerns and told him we were hesitant to have honest conversations with him, he seemed genuinely surprised, and he pledged to be more open to feedback. Over time, he became one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.
From this experience, I realized how important it is for leaders to create cultures in which employees enjoy raising, discussing, and working through conflicting opinions. That’s why my organization goes out of its way to provide team members with tools that channel conflict toward productivity.
Perhaps the most invaluable tool my team uses is a social contract. This an age-old concept can be traced all the way back to Socrates — but it’s certainly not outdated. According to one study, modern managers spend 43 percent of their time refereeing workplace conflict. While this is important, it slows down growing companies.
Our organization’s social contract empowers employees to sort through conflicts together — many times without a referee — which builds stronger working relationships, preserves our fast-paced environment, and encourages innovation. Here are three key ingredients that go into creating a successful social contract:
A Culture That Agrees to Rigorously Work Through Conflicting Perspectives
Some entrepreneurs strive to eliminate conflict from their companies altogether, hoping to create what Southwest Airlines calls “a culture of artificial harmony.” This is done in both subtle and unsubtle ways. Some directly tell employees to stop creating tension in the office. Others take a passive approach by asking “Who agrees?” after presenting a new initiative — rather than asking for alternative ideas.
These leaders are implying that great employees don’t speak their minds — when, in reality, the opposite is true. Promoting conformity in a workplace will only stifle a startup’s velocity because employees will approach their jobs with less creativity and more caution.
Instead, create a culture that celebrates its differences and enjoys working through them. My organization plays Planning Poker, an exercise that’s mostly used in the software development world but is just as useful in other contexts. Planning Poker encourages all team members to independently vote on their opinions, and after the most polarized viewpoints are identified, the group hashes them out to reach an optimal answer.
The Magic Words
A social contract should not look and feel like a legal contract. It should be brief and feature positive and casual verbiage, mirroring the way a company naturally communicates in its day-to-day operations.
Employees should not feel like they’re signing their lives away. In fact, at my organization, we don’t ask our employees to sign anything — we don’t even call our social contract a “social contract.” Instead, our “credos” are housed on our website for the world to see. Keeping it succinct and using non-threatening language boosts both understanding and enthusiasm around the initiative.
Our credos emphasize that we expect all team members — regardless of position or tenure — to courageously share their views if they believe it will benefit the company. We highlight the importance of diversity of thought, and we urge employees to invest in helping one another and the organization grow. We stress the importance of speed, inviting employees to openly acknowledge disagreements and resolve them together.
Promotion, Not Enforcement
As with any companywide initiative, social contracts must be strategically promoted through the ranks of a company. Ensure that the entire leadership team is truly eager to listen to, consider, and challenge employees’ ideas without prejudice. Every manager must be united behind the contract and committed to leading by example before it reaches the rest of the organization.
Then, over a series of town hall-style meetings, employees should be introduced to the contract and its purpose and be encouraged to ask questions and voice concerns. In other words, put the social contract into practice when presenting it to the team. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but within the first month, employees will begin to visibly experiment with the contract’s tenets. Publicly recognize this behavior, as this will accelerate its spread throughout the company.
Be sure to make new employees aware of the social contract as early as possible. We schedule 30-minute meetings with every new hire to talk exclusively about our credos, our commitment to courage, and our expectations for overcoming conflict. This lays immediate groundwork for an innovative and productive future.
A workplace without conflict is a workplace lacking diverse ideas. Create an environment that recognizes conflict as a key ingredient to innovation, and instill a social contract that helps employees channel it constructively.