Why coalition friction could be a good thing

09 November 2017
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Dr Fiona Kennedy

Dr Fiona Kennedy explains how differences between Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First could spur innovation

The formalities are done, Ministerial appointments made, first policies announced – the work of the new government has begun. And for this government, formed by a coalition, this means working and governing in ways that suit a complex union and employing leadership practices that, while always important, don’t seem so critical when one party is in charge.

The word ‘coalition’ challenges the conventional image of a united government where ‘everyone is working on the same page’. This conventional image renders conflict and differences as signs of dysfunction, breakdown and bad relationships. However, the latest thoughts within leadership focus on the benefits of collaborative arrangements where, instead of being seen as negatives, conflict and contradiction are viewed as potential sources of innovation and resilience.

In the weeks before the election, the Labour Party manifesto referred to water as a ‘precious tāonga’ while a New Zealand First speech to Hastings & District Grey Power in September seemed to reference the Labour Party policy with the title: Seriously Alarming Policies on Water. The Greens, meanwhile, pointed to the problem of unsafe town water supplies. Such differences call for new ways of engaging that make the coalition more than the sum of its parts.

The conventional view would suggest this is wishful thinking and that the coalition represents leadership from a ‘three-headed monster’. Political commentator Chris Trotter signalled such danger when he argued: "It would be an enormous error for New Zealand's progressive community to convince itself that the deep contradictions embedded in the manifestos of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens can somehow be overcome.” And traditional government language, such as referring to ‘the Opposition’, adds to the picture of a fight for domination.

However, leading leadership researchers offer new ways of thinking about friction. They argue that, rather than suppressing conflict, leaders need different frameworks and skills that surface and orchestrate conflict and use it as a source of energy. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues argue that friction and creativity go hand in hand. They advocate for ‘creative abrasion’ or the productive thrashing out of differences within an environment where parties are clear about their shared purpose. Having studied highly innovative organisations, they argue that one of the defining features is the willingness to work through seemingly contradictory ideas. They warn that the alternative, which is using power to overcome differences, has stifling effects.

Scholars Katherine Quick from the University of Minnesota and Martha Feldman from the University of California take a slightly different approach. They have pointed out that when one group encounters boundaries or barriers with another group, this typically creates separation and interferes with productive action. However, they suggest thinking of these differences not as boundaries, but as ‘junctures’ where diverse connections are possible. These are places, it is suggested, where you can translate between one way of thinking and another. The metaphor of ‘junctures’ is helpful because it conjures up a hub of action for all sorts of different directions and comings and goings.

In our leadership development work at NZLI, we practise ‘boundary work’. We ask managers to practise noticing and naming differences, and to become ‘comfortable with the discomfort’ that this raises. We also ask them to become much more curious about differences rather than minimising or glossing over them. Collaborations may sound cosy, but the work of collaboration is anything but. Collaborations are extraordinarily taxing. They require skilful engagement with differences, contradictions and competing interests.

Coalition requires parties to be clear about their shared purpose so they can engage with their very different views. A governance body convinced of its mandate to lead is always at risk of hubris and of staying in its bunker, engaging with those who shore up their ideas about what is good, and what is right, and relying on power to avoid the challenge of inconvenient viewpoints.

The work of Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First is not to ‘overcome’ their differences, but to know their purpose and see their differences as potential sites of rich connection. ‘Creative abrasion’ and boundary work are a legitimate and necessary dimension of their work.

Dr Fiona Kennedy is the Leadership Mindset Programmes' lead facilitator, at the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI), in the University of Auckland's Business School.

Used with permission from NewsroomWhy coalition friction could be a good thing published on Thursday 9 November 2017.