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It’s time to fight with your coworkers. No, seriously. It’s likely that on most days, you and your teammates have disagreements about the way something should be done. Whether it’s a proposal or a presentation, everyone’s got an opinion about how a project should be carried about. But rare is the person who can constructively stand up and propose a new way forward.
Make no mistake: we’re not encouraging you to throw down, bare-knuckle, Gangs-of-New-York style, but what we are asking still requires courage. The courage to challenge each other’s ideas in a healthy, mutually-respectful way. It’s easy to disagree about something on a project, it’s a whole other challenge to engage in constructive conflict about it. But on the other side of a good “fight” over the best strategy for your team’s next big decision is a final result that’s sharper, cleaner, and closer to what everyone wants: the best possible result. Our challenge to you is this: find a way to engage your coworkers in a healthy disagreement, and leave your ego completely out of it.
In the end, you may find that their way is the best way; but with a good debate, you’ll walk out with a refined, fire-tested product that everyone can be the most proud of. Here are just a few ways that competition brings about the best results your team could hope for. This week, ask yourself whether or not your team is properly positioned to engage in conflict in a way that truly promotes growth and employee engagement.
Here’s a quick thought-experiment: if three people are wandering around a maze trying to find each other, what’s the most efficient way for everyone to come together? Would that plan include communication? Of course it would. Unless everyone starts to identify where they’re at, the process of coming to a solution is just three individuals aimlessly wandering back and forth, hoping for dumb luck to strike.
It’s important to communicate your ideas so that everyone knows where you’re at—and so that you know where your team is at. Otherwise you’re just making a lot of blind assumptions. Let’s take it a step further: let’s say only one person in the maze is communicating, and they keep insisting that all of your are in the same location. You know that you’re not, so why would you choose to stay silent? Writing for Fast Company, Paul Glover makes the point that conflict is a true test of an employee’s ability to properly communicate: “If we don’t train [employees] to [communicate and manage conflict] for themselves and a manager steps in to resolve the conflict … the group doesn’t have a chance to [develop into its full potential].” No team ever fully agrees 100% of the time—that’s just pure fiction. But the only way that we can iron out those disagreements is by bringing them to the table. And if you can do that in a constructive way, you’re opening up the potential for some really healthy and paradigm-shifting conversations.
Henry Ford is famous for saying of his invention of the Model T, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And this idea carries over to the idea of healthy conflict: If we simply stick with the status quo, we cannot come up with new ideas. And if we don’t challenge the normal way of thinking, we can never innovate. If you have an environment in which people feel comfortable to disagree—and know how to do it in a healthy, respectful way—you’re going to have people who are unafraid to vocalize risky ideas.
Conversely, if you have an environment at work where challenging conventional ideas is discouraged, you’ll never be able to truly move forward. You’ll be treading water instead of swimming upstream. When you encourage your team to challenge each other, someone won’t sit at their desk feeling stupid: they instead will be OK to float an idea that the rest of the group may graciously shut down. Rebecca Greenfield explains the probably all-too-familiar scenario in which fear of conflict causes a creative roadblock: “People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped.” Don’t create a culture of “yes” people.
Create an environment where people dare to poke holes in an idea until you’ve uncovered all the flaws. If you truly care about creating the best possible result, you’ll never be afraid of being told something is wrong: You’ll crave it.
What is your highest aspiration for your team? More likely than not, you probably have loftier dreams than simply agreeing on everything. For most of us, the greatest success of our team is measured by setting goals and achieving them.
And getting to those goals takes risk, and innovation, and a whole lot of hard work. And that’s why simply agreeing or disagreeing on a strategy isn’t enough. If about coming to the best possible conclusion that everyone on your team can buy into. As psychologist Sherrie Campbell explains, “conflict provides each person a voice that’s an essential component of effective teamwork. Feeling heard and important are key psychological factors linked to inspiring and motivating each member to commit to an objective.” By promoting healthy conflict within your team, you’re essentially taking a temperature on how unified your team is. If there’s freedom to disagree, it means that everyone is on the same page in terms of working towards a shared goal.
If team members do not feel the freedom to disagree, it may mean that you as a leader are not properly communicating your team’s goals—or worse, your team simply isn’t bought into achieving those goals. When employees don’t feel a sense of ownership in your team’s overall success, that’s when employee engagement crumbles. Healthy conflict is the firm foundation on which all of your team can grow and work towards its ultimate success.
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