Why Fighting Is Good

Originally published May 2, 2018 by The Montrose Daily Press 

Two of your team members are having an argument across the conference room table that now seems less than a table and more like a gory battlefield. Others around the table become visibly uncomfortable. Arms cross. Facial expressions harden. How do you feel? Is conflict a comfortable place or is avoidance your best policy?

Through researching this topic, I’ve concluded there absolutely is not enough conflict in my professional life. Of course this is by my own very careful and meticulous design. Conflict is scary, uncomfortable and takes a lot of security. We have the most conflict with those we love. Why? Because we trust they won’t walk away from the relationship if we challenge their thinking or actions.

How can we translate this to the workplace? As leaders, are we facilitating a safe place for our staff to challenge us? Generally speaking, people will always agree and show support for their leader’s ideas and actions. If the boss tells a joke — everyone laughs. It’s just the way the world works. Truly great leaders can invite (healthy) conflict into the workplace by facilitating security and trust.

As CEO of GE, Jack Welch told people he wasn’t paying them to agree with him. Further, he made this promise: The fastest way to the top is to disagree with him and be right. He didn’t pay people to agree with him because there is absolutely no traction in a bunch of people who walk like lemmings behind a leader. No one, not even Welch is right all the time because no one can see everything from every angle.

We need conflict. We need to be challenged in our beliefs and actions. When I met my husband, he was not afraid of disagreeing with me. Not over household chores or money. Rather, we had real disagreements over political, religious and fundamental issues. For most of my life, I had assumed the belief systems of my parents and others in my close circle. I’d been playing “follow the leader” for the sake of belonging rather than choosing a path of my own self-discovery.

My husband questioned all of those things. Not to be right (though he often was), but to help me discover other perspectives. And you know what happened? I was red- hot mad at first. How dare he question who I am and my values? But then, as he continued challenging me, I realized those imposed beliefs weren’t truly reflective of me. This newfound perspective has afforded a view of the other side of things and as a result, I live my life better.

If we don’t make it safe for people to speak up and share their thoughts or opinions on something, then they will agree out of obligation and safety. And if they agree out of obligation, then they won’t wholeheartedly buy into the idea. If people weigh in with their thoughts and even passionately argue their viewpoint and the team still opts for an alternative direction, at least they feel like they were heard. This reduces harbored resentment and promotes idea adoption through increased personal value to the team.

In his time as CEO of Home Depot, Frank Blake spent a lot of time walking the floors of his retail stores and corporate offices. He would talk with managers and associates. Rather than asking them how “project X” was going, he would instead ask, “Why isn’t project X working?” People believed he already knew something wasn’t going well with the project and his prompt served as an open invitation for honest feedback. Blake found it rare someone would report that “project X” was in fact flawless. It was a great tool for understanding how large directives were working on the front line. Blake facilitated a way for people to challenge the process (as opposed to challenging the person).

Conflict presents immense opportunity in organizational culture if we put the right things in place. Whether you are the person being challenged or the challenger, own the role. Encourage people to challenge you. Encourage yourself to speak up and challenge others. We are all human, and we are all imperfect. There is a difference in being argumentative and being passionate; be sure you know the difference … and then … be bold.

I want to hear your opinions, comments, and suggestions on my topics, writing style, and more. Please feel free to weigh in!