The media was abuzz last week with the Yanny vs. Laurel debate. It nearly broke the Internet with 22 million views in two days. Whether you hear Yanny or Laurel, it is a great reminder of how humans innately process the same information differently. Essentially, it’s an optical illusion for the ears. The reasons that this happens is because: 1) the word is present without context to interpret it, and 2) the background is noisy, meaning that the recording contains a lot of different frequencies. What you hear depends on which frequencies your brain emphasizes. That millions of people can disagree over something seemingly simple, like a word, speaks volumes to how we can have divergent views over more complex situations. In the social sector, where disagreements are sometimes avoided to maintain congeniality, the Yanny vs. Laurel debate can be a good conversation starter on how we approach conflict in our own organizations. Everyone approaches an issue with a different mental model. Although disagreement can lead to conflict, at times different perspectives and experiences exacerbate it.
As leaders in the social sector, it is important to remember that not only do our teams (both board and staff) perceive our decisions and actions differently, but they also respond to conflict in different ways. Silence does not mean everyone agrees. If our priority is to have an open organization where individuals are empowered to challenge decisions for the greater good, then as leaders, we need to encourage diverse viewpoints. Taking time to learn how your team members manage conflict and encouraging them to use positive approaches to practice dissent can go a long way. When someone disagrees with a management decision, his or her responses can take many forms, and if we attune ourselves to these mechanisms, we can start to push individuals to share their perceptions in constructive ways. Below we outline how people respond to conflict – ideally, we should strive to be active collaborators.
One of the common hurdles many of us in the social sector face in dealing with conflict is ourselves. We, the members of the nonprofit sector, are often our own worst enemy. We are very passionate about our causes, but we also care so much about how others feel that we are tempted to accommodate or avoid issues rather than create uncomfortable situations. While we sometimes need to choose our battles, there are other times when we need to press pause on nonprofit niceness to ensure that we get the solution just right. Here are a few litmus tests to assess whether decisions warrant further discussion:
- Is the decision consistent with laws, ethics, management practices or company values?
- How will this action affect our donors and partners?
- How will this action affect those we serve?
- Are we leading with ego-thinking or eco-thinking?
- Have circumstances changed? Do we need to revisit the decision based on changes in the environment or results?
Our favorite, quick way to help spark discussion and safely encourage dissent is by assigning one person to serve as “devil’s advocate,” arguing against proposed ideas to reveal their possible weaknesses.
For a big decision (e.g., a move, a program change) in which a lot is at stake, we use Edward deBono’s Six Thinking Hats and give staff permission to put on each hat (e.g., red hat is about feelings and intuition, black hat is about judgment and discernment, etc.). It is an excellent process to vet a big decision and assist with scenario planning.
Although talking about how decisions can affect our teams and clients takes more time and creates discomfort, the potential reward – enhanced decision-making – is high. Our staff will feel valued that their voices were heard; our teams will be more satisfied with the final decision, even if they disagree; and our clients will be better served. We would love to hear how you encourage dissent in your organization.