"Absence of conflict can be a sign of decay."
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
THE MEAT (The Main Idea)
As a longtime fan of Michael Fullan's work in education, I knew that his quote about conflict belonged at the top of the Charcuterie Quote Board. Like a well-crafted charcuterie board, Fullan's words give us the right balance between sweet and savory. This quote makes you question your thinking on conflict. Isn't conflict a bad thing? Well Fullan suggests not always!
In this quote, Fullan is arguing that effective leadership involves managing conflict in a way that leads to positive outcomes for everyone involved. He suggests that conflict is often seen as a negative thing in schools, and that leaders may be tempted to avoid it altogether in order to maintain a sense of harmony and stability. However, Fullan argues that this approach can actually lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation, as well as a sense of complacency among staff members. Instead, Fullan advocates for a "productive conflict" approach to leadership, where conflict is viewed as an opportunity for growth and improvement. He suggests that school leaders should create an environment where ideas are openly debated and discussed, and where disagreements are viewed as a natural and healthy part of the change process. By creating a space in which ideas can be openly discussed and debated, leaders can encourage creativity and innovation, and inspire their colleagues to embrace change and adapt to new challenges.
THE CHEESE (Added Depth)
Let's take a look at an example of this quote in action.
Sarah is a principal at a school that has been struggling with low student achievement. Despite the challenges, Sarah had worked hard to build a positive and collaborative school culture. She decided to put out the data and engage in conversation about the story the data was saying. However, she was met with resistance and pushback. Her staff saw the presentation as confrontational and negative (because the data was negative), and Sarah felt frustrated and discouraged. The truth was, Sarah didn't want to argue or create conflict. She was genuinely concerned about the school's performance and wanted to engage in healthy conflict to find solutions. But she also felt conflicted about how to approach the situation. On one hand, she believed in the saying, "the path of least resistance," and didn't want to ruffle any feathers. On the other hand, she knew that avoiding conflict could lead to decay and stagnation in the school. Sarah realized that Fullan's quote about conflict being a sign of life resonated with her. She knew that conflict could be a powerful tool for growth and improvement, but it had to be managed in a positive and productive way. She decided to revisit the data with her staff, but this time, she made sure to emphasize that they were all on the same team and that they needed to focus on the data, not the people connected to the data. This time, they were able to have a productive discussion about the data story and intervention and came up with a new plan that everyone was committed to. The school started to show improvement, and Sarah felt a renewed sense of purpose and energy.
If Sarah had been afraid of the conflict and had decided not to engage with her staff, the school could have continued to operate under the assumption that their intervention was working, despite evidence to the contrary. The staff may have continued to feel comfortable in their routines and practices, rather than striving for improvement and growth. The lack of open and honest communication about the data could have led to a breakdown in trust between Sarah, her staff, and the community she serves. In the end, the school would have continued to struggle with student achievement, and Sarah's desire to maintain a sense of harmony would have resulted in a missed opportunity for growth and improvement. Fullan's assertion that productive conflict is necessary for positive change couldn't be more true. When we avoid conflict, we also avoid possibility for growth and progress.
THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element)
Alistair Cooke was a British journalist and television personality who became famous for his "Letter from America" radio program, which ran on the BBC and then on NPR in the United States for over 50 years. Cooke was known for his insightful and witty commentary on American culture and politics, and his broadcasts were beloved by millions of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now, I'm not a political expert by any means - in fact, my knowledge of politics comes mainly from binge-watching Designated Survivor and The Crown. My other heavy stream of politics comes from my son who absorbs copious amounts through blogs, YouTube, and various other sources which I get to hear about in passing.
In one of his "Letters from America," Cooke used a similar quote used to reflect on the state of politics in the United States. He stated, "The absence of conflict is not harmony, but simply the absence of tension." He noted that, in American politics, conflict was often viewed as a negative thing, and that politicians were often criticized for being too "confrontational" or "divisive." However, Cooke argued that conflict was a necessary part of the political process, and that without it, important issues would often be ignored or swept under the rug. Cooke's use of this quote highlights the fact that the concept of "productive conflict" is not limited to the field of education, but can be applied to many areas of life, including politics, business, and personal relationships. By embracing conflict in a positive and productive way, we can address the challenges we face and create positive change in the world around us.