As we’ve been discussing, mutual agreement is a key for focusing on the common good. Oddly enough, so is disagreement. Like many other leadership challenges, balancing the benefits of each is critical for success within higher education. Effective collaboration does not mean working without dissent – it means communicating openly and honestly about your own and others’ viewpoints, even (or especially) when they aren’t the same.
A series of books including Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations provide tips for talking safely about areas of disagreement. In a recent blog post, the authors talked about “one simple skill to overcome peer pressure.” That skill is the polite and respectful expression of your concerns.
The blog described a study that replicated famous research, but with a twist. They asked participants to solve a problem with a clear right answer. When others in the group (who were in on the study) all gave the wrong answer, 2/3 of the subjects went along with the crowd, even though they knew it was wrong. However, when they changed the process and one of the others expressed doubt, almost all participants gave the right answer. Hearing someone else’s concerns gave them more freedom to say what they really thought.
As Anita described last year, the idea of dissent is essential for group accountability and commitment. Focusing on the common good means working across many kinds of boundaries with people who have many opinions and viewpoints. Creating safe space for disagreement, and listening respectfully to what others have to say, will allow collaborative work to move forward.
Dee Anne Bonebright
Perceived slights, divergent goals, misunderstandings, arguments, different roles, unique experiences and background. A recipe for collaboration? Or for sparks and conflict? Sounds like a description of many of our work sites. And also perhaps a group even more familiar.
I grew up with two brothers. Yes, three boys (and a dad!) growing up and now adults. There were a lot of sparks and very little collaboration. Yet we kept talking through our conflicts and now can count on each other to work together and focus on the common good. As leaders we also need to keep talking if we want to build a collaborative work environment, despite all the sparks!
Last week at our Luoma Leadership Academy Annual Professional Development Gathering we partnered with the Conflict Resolution Center to explore why Conflict is a Beautiful Thing. In one of our breakout sessions we learned about the Four Agreements we need to make with ourselves to keep talking even when there is conflict. (Adapted from Glenn E. Singleton & Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2006. pp.58-65. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.)
- Stay engaged – don’t give up even when it feels hopeless.
- Speak your truth – say what needs to be said, respectfully!
- Experience discomfort – be prepared for and embrace the natural divisiveness and sparks that will arise from dialogue.
- Expect and accept non-closure – starting the conversation is only the beginning and you need to demonstrate persistence and comfort with the uncertainty.
Pushing through the sparks of conflict can forge stronger relationships. In fact the sparks usually are a clear indicator of the passion and energy available for working on the common good. That’s why it is worth the discomfort.
Yes, who can I count on to help me get my dock out just before the lake freezes? My brothers!
“Collaboration is defined as the synergistic relationship formed when two or more entities working together produce something much greater than the sum of their individual abilities and contributions.” – Dan Sanker
As Dee Anne mentioned in her last post, leaders need the ability to work across disciplines, sectors, and geographical boundaries to solve our grand challenges. In other words, they need the ability to work collaboratively.
For the last several years, collaboration has become a mantra of sorts within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). It’s the kind of behavior we say we want to model, encouraging all faculty, staff, and administrators to think beyond their self-interests or the boundaries of their own units, colleges, or universities, to the greater good. We aspire to work collaboratively to address our some of our own grand challenges within MnSCU, like keeping tuition affordable in the face of declining federal and state funding or ensuring that our students have access to education that prepares them to lead in every sector of Minnesota’s economy.
As a leader, you might ask, what can you do to create a culture that fosters collaboration? In his book, Collaborate! The Art of We, Dan Sanker says that while there is no one recipe for success, there are certain practices found among organizations that create and maintain collaborative cultures. Here are a few:
- Establish trust
- Give people enough time to collaborate
- Provide access to people and information
- Encourage communication
- Help people hold productive meetings
- Provide tools that facilitate collaboration
- Recognize and reward collaborative efforts
Some of the most satisfying work that I have been a part of in higher education has been the result of collaboration across disciplines and boundaries and working towards a common, larger goal. The best of those collaborations were built on trust, open communication, with resources allocated towards the efforts and clear sponsorship from top leaders.
What has worked to foster collaboration and work toward the common good in your experience?
“In the twenty-first century a new vision of leadership is needed more than ever. Leaders must integrate knowledge and talent from individuals in the private, not-for-profit, and government sectors to advance the common good.” — Marilyn Carlson Nelson
One of my highlights in grad school was the chance to take a course through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL). I learned a lot about cross-sector collaboration and what they call “grand challenges” – the issues that are too complex for a single discipline, organization, or sector to solve on its own.
According to the CIL, focusing on the common good means leading in ways that address grand challenges to create public value, not only through efficiency and effectiveness but also with justice and fairness. Some of their core beliefs about this type of leadership include:
- Leadership is necessary for addressing grand challenges and promoting the common good
- Leadership is often most needed in the intersections of conflicting world views, beliefs, and knowledge
- Leadership is most powerful when it is empowering others to make positive change
- Collaborative leadership is a skill that can be learned, and building leadership capacity broadly can be more effective than focusing only on those with positional power
- Everyone has a role and responsibility to engage in acts of leadership that address grand challenges and promote the common good
As leaders within MnSCU, we all need the ability to work across disciplines, sectors, and geographical boundaries to solve our own grand challenges. In the three years that I’ve been here I’ve learned about many intersections of conflicting viewpoints, beliefs, and areas of expertise. I’ve also seen examples of effective leadership that crosses those boundaries for the benefit of everyone.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO of Carlson Companies, was instrumental in creating the CIL. She believed that learning to collaborate in more effective ways is fundamental to leading for the common good. “The cross-pollination of ideas is no less important to solving society’s grand challenges than the major breakthroughs we herald in technology, medicine, or any other discipline.” (Carlson School magazine, fall 2013).
What grand challenges are facing your unit, your institution, and your community? How have you seen leaders work across sectors to address them?
Dee Anne Bonebright
Ever since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.
I first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?
While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?
What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities, Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.
Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.
“No decisions should ever be made without asking the question, is this for the common good?” – Michael Moore
As leaders, we constantly face competing priorities, projects, and perhaps most difficult to manage, competing interests. This fact was reconfirmed last fall when we surveyed higher education leaders in MnSCU to identify their most pressing leadership challenges. In that survey, leaders mentioned the need to:
- Balance the good of the whole vs. individual good or good for my unit
- Develop system solutions vs. individual institution solutions
- Incent and reward collaborative work and behavior
This month we’ll be exploring these topics and more as we address some of the leadership challenges inherent in focusing on the common good. What challenges have you encountered while balancing the common good with competing interests? What has helped you to focus on the common good?