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By Marcel Schwantes

In the workplace, it is a common notion that conflict should be avoided. However, when done in a constructive manner, challenging co-workers’ ideas can lead to immense innovation and growth for an organization.

Tony Libardi, president and chief operating officer of Marco’s Franchising, which operates the international pizza chain, Marco’s Pizza, recognizes that each member of the corporation plays a pivotal role in the company’s overarching success.

What this means is that he puts himself in the precarious position of letting his ideas be challenged by anybody in the organization. That goes for anyone else too; it’s a cultural expectation that working through conflict is the pathway to grow faster.

“When I am first introduced to leaders, I try to start by giving and granting permission to push back. I am a passionate person who has strong opinions, but it doesn’t mean that I’m right,” Libardi told me.

“If you need to come back a second, third and fourth time for me to gain understanding and agreement, I welcome this. I always say that I don’t have to be right in the debate, but I have to be right in the decision. And, we are both accountable for those decisions,” Libardi said.

He embraces the concept of a “productive dispute,” which he described as letting people say what needs to be said, with respect and a positive tone in real time, and listening for understanding when others are providing feedback.

“All this with an eye on driving performance and achieving results. Whatever you say at the water cooler, you can say in the room,” Libardi said.

Libardi attributes this stance of open debate to helping grow Marco’s franchise to nearly 1,000 locations.

I asked him how he guards his culture of radical transparency against an idea coming from the left-field of a personal agenda.

“We do this through accountability. We call actions that support personal agendas ‘below the line’ activities, like covering your tail, for example. Instead, we encourage ‘above the line’ actions: see it, own it, solve it, and do it,” Libardi said.

To ensure accountability, Libardi and his team demand that respectful conflict and debate live in the reality of data and facts to support recommendations and points. For example, he said, “we refrain from ‘I like that idea, but …’ criticism,” and he makes sure that points of debate “are aligned to our target audience: our customers and guests.”

More importantly, he said, the first step is to put people first and listen for understanding versus seeking a solution, which should be the last step in a conflict. Because restaurant people are entrepreneurs and natural problem solvers, he can’t emphasize enough that, before coming up with a solution (the very last step), you have to first “seek to understand, seek to align, and then work together to solve the problem.”

While a conflict strategy may look different for each organization, Libardi holds “conflict sessions” to welcome many differing opinions around a tough issue, such as underperforming stores. He says without these conflict sessions in place to hear others’ points-of-view, “we might have missed something awesome.”

If you’re skeptical of Libardi’s leadership strategy, there’s plenty of reasons why you should reconsider. He offers up three of them:

  1. It’s better to make the right decision than to be right

As a leader, Libardi stresses the importance of laying aside your ego and recognizing that the good of the organization trumps personal gain.

“I always invite teammates to challenge any ideas I have outlined for our company’s growth, initiatives, etc. Many times, they will bring forward ideas I had not thought of, which makes more sense in aligning with our goals.”

  1. Questioning brings innovation

When people are encouraged to work together to question ideas set in front of them, many times more creative and out-of-the- box insights arise. This helps to push the business forward.

  1. Build relationships and increase trust

Opening things up for discussion allows every team member to get to know each other on a deeper level. Regardless of position or title, you share opinions and thoughts and can build on strengths that are unearthed.

“As someone who is in a higher position, saying hello and asking my counterparts’ opinions helps me get to know those that might otherwise approach me. This helps to build trust among employees and bolsters employee retention,” he said.


Marcel Schwantes is a speaker, executive coach and the host of the Love in Action podcast.

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