Really, really good post. I think this is an issue at the root of many challenges that organizations and leaders face.
You posed two questions for me…
1.) Does my experience align with yours regarding the desire of most folks to avoid conflict (even at great cost)?
Yes. Emphatically yes. In some of the workshops that I do inside of organizations we spend time considering the culture…we actually examine specific aspects of the organizations culture, assign them a grade and then talk about opportunities for improvement. People seem to enjoy doing this and have no problem identifying specific things that the organization or senior leaders can do better. Then we move on to talk about individual opportunities to contribute to a better organizational culture and the entire conversation dries up. I start to hear things like:
“Change starts at the top, how am I going to make something happen.”
“I just do my job and keep my head down.”
I do not know if real change ever starts at the top, but there are a whole host of reasons that people have (regardless of their title) about why the environment is not quite right for them to speak out or to take some ownership for organizational culture.
2.) What must we do to solve this problem?
Probably several answers to this question, depending on who “we” is. But I think that the big answer is that we must strive to build organizational culture and organizational leadership that values and rewards personal courage and risk taking. This is a really big shift, as we currently have a way of leadership that defaults to defense of the hierarchy and the status quo. This always compromises truth…which compromises everything else.
You probably have some additional and more specific answers relevant to your role inside the machine. I think that I have to be very intentional about holding myself accountable on this issue, because as an external consultant I can fall into the same trap of focusing on what others want to hear rather than the whole truth. I have gotten much better at having candid (and often times very difficult) conversations with organizational leaders about my observations, but I know that when I first began work as a consultant I did not do a very good job of this.
Again, I think you have touched on a really important topic here and I would love to hear a bit more from your perspective about solutions…are there things that you do to develop the comfort and skill in your direct reports for handling conflict?