Why coalition friction could be a good thing

17 November 2017

Differences between Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First could spur innovation, suggests Fiona Kennedy.

The formalities are done, ministerial appointments made, and first policies announced – the work of the new Government has begun. As a coalition government, this means working and governing in ways that suit a complex union and employing leadership practices that, while always important, seem less critical when a single party is in charge.

The word ‘coalition’ challenges the conventional image of a united government where everyone is 'on the same page’. This conventional image renders conflict and differences as signs of dysfunction, breakdown, and bad relationships. However, the latest thinking on leadership focuses 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 and 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 by a three-headed monster. Political commentator Chris Trotter signalled such a 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, Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill and her colleagues argue that friction and creativity go hand in hand.

They advocate 'creative abrasion' – the productive thrashing out of differences in an environment in which parties are clear about their shared purpose. Having studied highly innovative organisations, the researchers argue that one of the defining features is a willingness to work through seemingly contradictory ideas. They warn that the alternative, which is using power to overcome differences, has stifling effects.

Associate Professor Katherine Quick of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Professor Martha Feldman of the University of California, Irvine 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.

To overcome this, they suggest thinking of such differences not as boundaries but as ‘junctures’ where diverse connections are possible. These are places where a person can translate between one way of thinking and another. The metaphor of junctures is helpful because it conjures a hub of action for all sorts of different directions and comings and goings.

In our leadership development work at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, we practise ‘boundary work’. We ask managers to notice and name 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. It is extraordinarily taxing, and requires 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.

Read the published article:

Fiona Kennedy

Dr Fiona Kennedy is a Researcher and Senior Leadership Facilitator at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, which is based at the University of Auckland Business School.

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