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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Conflict has value. Any alliance without an occasional clash of diverging ideas will be as satisfying as a diet of chicken broth or a dip in a tepid bath.

It's Just Conflict

Originally Published: 16 February 2015
Last Updated: 09 March 2021

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One of my earliest jobs was at an advertising agency, and the main thing I remember about working there is that everybody screamed at each other all the time. Sometimes the screaming was loud, sometimes it was more of a hiss, sometimes it was profane, but invariably, the people who worked there were entrenched in conflict with one another. Everything was an argument, from who made the coffee to who was smarter than whom. They fought over ideas, handling of clients, kissing of asses, and compensation. I left that job as soon as possible, and with a minor case of PTSD.

Each subsequent job I took involved a careful screening of the environment. I was not going to work in an angry and competitive culture ever again.

And I never did. Instead, I found something even more disturbing. A place where nobody was supposed to argue or dissent at all. Over anything. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t part of the culture. It was conflict.

I am neither a screamer nor a fighter. I am, however, very comfortable with argument, and I am very direct. Some of that is just my personality, but some of it is purposeful self-development. Two of the things I value are clarity and progress, and a good argument can be a tremendous facilitator of both. So working at a company that stifled anything that looked like conflict was very disturbing. And as you might guess, the company had stagnated. Everyone was happy, though nobody got a raise. Everybody was equal, but the company had dropped to the lowest common denominator.

You company – heck, your life, your marriage, your relationships – need argument. Argument isn’t necessary all the time, nor does it need to be disrespectful or demeaning, but it must exist for change and progress to occur. A collaboration of any sort without at least an occasional clash of diverging or opposite ideas will be as satisfying as a diet of chicken broth and as energizing as a dip in a tepid bath.

Progress, innovation, and breakthroughs happen in the space between assumptions and ideas. When two or more people engage in a passionate discussion, throwing all their experience and beliefs out on the table for dissection and examination, great things can happen. Of course, it’s not actually an argument if nobody is listening. An argument is defined as an exchange of ideas. If each side is only throwing and not catching, that’s a game of dodgeball.

If you want to cultivate an environment that encourages people to bring their whole self to work, you need to encourage an environment that makes it safe to argue. That means helping people who like to argue do so in a respectful manner, and it means making argument safe for people who are terrified of argument. It means helping managers understand that the exchange of ideas must also come from their subordinates, and it means creating a safe environment for subordinates to bring their ideas to the table and even fight for them.

One of the best ways to do this is to create a culture that identifies and encourages arguments as debates. First, you must help everyone understand that a debate is a structured forum in which opposing ideas are presented, supported with facts or evidence, and dissected to find the flaws. In a debate, one side listens while the other side speaks. Speaking with passion and heat are perfectly OK, but attacking the other side professionally or personally is not. The goal is to at least decide on the best course of action among the alternatives, or at best to determine an even better course of action than anyone had thought of prior.

In the early stages of introducing this idea to a culture, the debates must be moderated – and some companies get so much out of the format that they continue to moderate forever, just to get the best results possible. The most common time to find such an argument brewing is in a meeting. It should be acceptable for anyone in the room to say, “It looks like we have a few conflicting ideas here. Let’s debate it.” This simple statement validates that it is perfectly acceptable to have conflicting ideas, and it serves as the cue for the group to move into the debate structure. One person should be at the white board, capturing the main ideas of each participant. A moderator is needed to summarize and reflect back what is said (which ensures understanding) and to make sure people wait their turn to talk (and to remind them to write a note so they don’t forget what they wanted to say).  It helps if the moderator is an extremely good listener with an ability to see the points of agreement among the debaters. And if a few raucous free-for-alls break out with everyone talking at once? The moderator steps in, cools things off, tells everyone to write down what they wanted the rest of the group to hear, and moves the group back into the debate structure – without judgment or criticism. Just re-focus.

Will every debate end up with a group hug? Definitely not. But neither does most passive aggression and conflict avoidance. By implementing this approach and practicing it over time, your company can gain skills in the cultivation of new ideas. Eventually people in the organization will get comfortable enough to realize that conflict is neither good nor bad, but how we embrace it makes all the difference in the world.