It seems to me, from reflecting on the Olympics, that truly great performances benefit from having someone else to ‘bounce off’. On occasions this can be achieved by colleagues in the same team pushing each other to ever higher levels, as evidenced by the Jamaican sprinters, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. It may also be achieved by fierce but respectful rivalry, where the standards of excellence set by one player forces the other to have to raise their game to heights they would not otherwise have to. The phenomenal standards of performance displayed by the world’s top tennis players is evidence of this. It is debatable whether Nadal would ever have reached the level of peak performance he has, if he was not asked some extraordinary questions on the tennis court by Federer. Djokovic has since had to take his game to even greater heights to become World number one. Whether friendly or fierce rivalry, in elite sport, the tensions, pressures, and challenges set, help motivate participants to keep raising their game.
But it is not only sport that can benefit from rivalry, conflict and challenge. Used effectively, disagreements and tensions can be hugely important in driving up standards in all walks of life.
This is illustrated most powerfully in this short clip of Margaret Heffernan, describing the inspiring story of Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist who struggled against the medical establishment to prove that x-rays on pregnant mothers were responsible for childhood cancers. During a long, and often lonely battle, to prove her case, Alice relied heavily upon a colleague, who was quite the opposite from Alice in many ways. His job, as a statistician and as a friend, was simple. To try to prove Alice’s data and results wrong. His job was to create conflict around her theories. Subjecting her work to this level of challenge and scrutiny, provided Alice with greater confidence about the validity of her theory, and helped her to find the energy to persist against formidable opposition.
So, how willing are we in the business world to be so open to this level of ‘voluntary’ challenge and conflict? To what extent are we willing to invite disagreement in the interest of true collaboration?
My experience suggests that most businesses have some way to go in harnessing the potential of this approach. People do not typically invite challenge in order to improve their own effectiveness. Instead, we see people protective of their position, defensive of their long-held views and fearful of being up-staged.
Continuous learning and ongoing improvement depend on many things, but fundamentally it requires openness to new input, diversity of ideas and people willing (and skilled) in constructive feedback.
Conflict can be good, if managed constructively. It moves things forward. it provides energy. But it must be handled with a mindset that focuses on the problem and not the people or emotions. If people are prepared to have their ideas turned upside down in the interests of testing their robustness, and can view this as a huge service (and not a personal attack), then perhaps we are getting close to what pure collaboration really means.
How might it be if everyone in business had a ‘friendly rival’, who was challenging, provocative, and not simply an ‘echo chamber’ to their ideas? What more might be achieved? How high might performance scale?
If you would like to explore ways to implement a more effective ‘thinking’ environment in the workplace, or simply discover ways to increase your own personal effectiveness, please do get in touch. Unlock your full potential. Simply contact me through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to have an initial chat about your personal or business objectives.