Letter from America

One of my childhood memories is waking up on a Sunday morning, and coming downstairs to a family breakfast. I am the youngest of five children and we always had a large breakfast before going off to church where my father was a minister. To complement the delight of our tasty cooked breakfast, my Dad always had Radio 4 on in the background. The programme I remember vividly is Alistair Cooke’s letter from America. I recall how he described looking out on Central Park as he reflected on what to write about based on US developments of the said week. I thought about this childhood experience during a short trip to New York, from where I am penning this month’s missive. 


One thing from my trip is clear. Organisations face people challenges irrespective of where they are around the world. In fact, I saw a sign in the back of someone’s car the other day which read ‘the more I interact with people, the more I love my dog’. One of the concepts I have been talking to organisations about on my short trip is that of Constructive controversy. Controversies occur within decision making and problem solving situations when team members try to define and diagnose a problem and decide on an appropriate solution to implement. It is a misnomer to think that a team will accept a change in direction or be influenced by a new idea without the opportunity to discuss and debate. The debating is often passionate. Some see this as a sign that they should back off. However, it is all common in the dynamics of groups and teams. When a decision is reached, the controversy ends and team members commit themselves (hopefully) to an agreed set of actions.

When managed properly, controversies can be extremely valuable for organisations. Three reasons for this are…

  1. There is insufficient knowledge and understanding of controversy and the advantages and potentially positive outcomes that can arise from disagreements
  2. Many colleagues lack the interpersonal skills and competencies needed to manage controversy once it surfaces
  3. The discussion of conflicting ideas may not be common practice in some organisations. A preference might be to ‘park’ an issue and leave it there forever.

A general feeling in society (certainly UK and US alike based on my trip) is that conflicts are bad and should be avoided. This is taken a stage further to assume that an effective organisation is one in which there are no conflicts amongst colleagues. Avoidance may potentially just raise the level of the conflict and becomes part of the problem rather than being the solution.

Healthy organisations do not have a lack of conflict. In fact, an absence of it may be signals for apathy, disinterest and non-involvement. Conflict is inevitable in healthy organisations. The issue is much more about how these tensions can be managed. So, the next time you witness the temperature rising, consider whether the controversy that is developing could be something finding its way to become a constructive decision, new way of working, thought or idea.

I am not sure whether I could ever put myself in the league of Alistair Cooke. I would certainly be delighted if like him I could continue writing and presenting until I am in my nineties. But, like him I have enjoyed reflecting on my US experience and my short visit to my most favourite place in the world.

Two more things briefly. Many have been asking about the band that I play in. To see more and to take a listen to two of our tracks, please click here Groovemajors.co.uk.

Secondly, we are helping one of our colleagues conduct some research on Resilience. There is a short survey that is helping the research. Please click here to complete the survey. It takes just over 10 minutes to complete.

Until next month,