When conflict works

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.


12 thoughts on “When conflict works

  1. So many great thoughts Louis! It reminded me of Michael Phelps coach Bob Bowman who challenges Phelps daily. One time stepping on and cracking his goggles, and making Phelps swim with water filling in them. He learned to count his strokes to handle the challenge. It seemed pretty cruel at the time but in 2008 his goggles filled with water during the Olympic competition. He was prepared, knew what to do, and counted his strokes to win the gold. People challenging us brings about our best ideas, our best work, and pushes us to levels we never imagined possible. Alice Stewart’s colleague helped to move through all of the the no’s in order to get to the yes’s. And all in all I think this is a story that shows how much we benefit from each other, and why it is critical not to be a lone ranger when you work at home. Finally, as you touched on… the challenges can still be made with a respect and compassion for one another. Keep up the great work, Louis!!

  2. I want to be careful how I approach this, because I feel that real conflict is always destructive rather than constructive. Disagreement, competition and rivalry are not conflict, from my point of view. The holding of conflicting ideas is disagreement, not conflict.

    In a business environment, disagreement is usually tolerated if it involves peers–let’s say two VP’s. If it involves a VP and a manager, it is usually to the manager’s detriment. So the “savvy” manager learns quickly not to disagree. Disagreement is usually criticized as negativity and dismissed or punished in all but the most intelligent businesses.

    I often quote Frank Zappa who said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” In genetics, this is literally true. In the pursuit of excellence, it is equally true. Disagreements, even fierce ones, often lead to better ideas if they are allowed to run their course. Intolerant leaders who don’t see value in disagreement inhibit progress.

    Even the legendarily intolerant Steve Jobs gave way to strong arguments: They just had to be strong enough to stand up.

    All sides should be heard; rigorous thought processes should be applied, and leaders should help mold consensus.

    “Duking it out” in the parking lot goes nowhere.

    • I get it Roy – and you are right. Words and their meanings can produce so many different emotions. Conflict is not a word that is deemed constructive, especially in the business environment. We just need to be mindful when businesses go too far the other way and become ‘yes’ cultures with very little tolerance of disagreement. Thanks for your comments – especially the Zappa quote.

  3. Thank you for this blog Louis! Elite athletes seem to understand the concept of challenging oneself at a cellular level – demanding elevated competition to continually raise their personal bars. The rest of us tend to need some help. In the workplace, when the intentions of challenging forces are unknown, or not overtly stated, emotions tend to kick in, along with the “fundamental attribution error”. We often assume negative motivation on the part of our challengers and the stories we tell ourselves about our “rivals” are seldom optimistic. This can be de-motivating to us, even upsetting. On the other hand, we know that a little friendly competition proactively set up between teams in the workplace can create external motivation and stimulate results, and often, more than a bit of fun. We have a great time in our workshops with competitive scenarios between participant groups – it’s amazing what grown people will do to win a chocolate bar! Perhaps the establishment of dialogue about the intentions of the competition is what creates the safety to respond positively to this kind of oppositional challenge in the workplace. Assuming best intentions can’t hurt either!

    • Many thanks for your great comments Tamara. Elite athletes do have a different outlook that would be difficult to replicate in the typical workplace. I think you are spot on about being clear on intentions. Changing businesses to become more ‘challenging’, tolerant of disagreements, and recognising the benefits of that change is certainly not easy or an overnight change. But, ultimately, worth it, if even small change can be made. Thanks again.

  4. Hi Louis
    I am a qualified person centred therapist and the concept of challenge/confrontation/ conflict is central to working effectively. Without noticing the contradictions and “holding up the mirror” so that my clients can see what I see, I am not really serving their cause. What makes my challenge effective is acceptance. I hope they experience my valuing of them – and that I value them enough to offer them my challenge.
    To add to Tamara’s comments
    I suspect many people experience conflict as someone attacking them (with an intent to hurt or win). it is not surprising therefore that defence takes over.
    So maybe, to take your ideas a stage further – I think we need to encourage the givers of feedback to examine their motives as much as the receivers to be open enough to hear what is being offered to them.
    My experience is that challenge without acceptance is rarely effective, and acceptance has to be genuine and felt – not just conveyed in the words used.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head Charlie – great insight. The art of providing feedback in a truly honest and ‘giving’ way, that has learning at it’s heart and is not just dressed up criticism is rare. In my experience, everyone can benefit from becoming more effective in this area. Thanks for your insightful contribution.

  5. Competitive conflict works best when it is between us and them, not within your own team or company. Bolt vs. Blake worked because they knew only one could win. See this article on Microsoft’s destructively competitive culture http://www.vanityfair.com/business/2012/08/microsoft-lost-mojo-steve-ballmer. I was at Microsoft 1999-2002. I was continuously shocked at the culture of sharp elbows. It was not enough to perform well – you had to undermine the performance of your peers in competition for performance ratings, bonuses, stock options, raises, etc. Team work is maximized in the face of an external threat. If the threat is internal, team work suffers.

    • Interesting angle Allen. I guess your point (as in the MS culture) also implies that ‘true collaboration’ cannot exist where people are defined as ‘winners & losers’. So, to get the benefits of collaboration, competition, teamwork, feedback etc. all depend on the culture being one that permits a ‘win-win’ outcome (i.e. where both parties have something to gain by participating in these activities). Have I drawn a fair conclusion in saying that?

  6. Hi Louis

    Great post. Coincidentally, I stumbled across Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk this morning and was inspired by Alice Stewart’s story.

    Your article reminded me of a project I had a few years ago, when a small company invited me to assess their meetings and suggest a more effective way to conduct them. I recall sitting in countless team meetings that were all very cordial and yet largely ineffective.

    Among the suggestions I offered at the end of the assessment period, was for the chair to ‘mine conflict’. Well, you would think I had asked for the chair to start a war!

    “We don’t want to argue in our meetings!” the MD declared, and he asked me not to use the word ‘conflict’ when I presented to the exec team.

    After explaining that conflict doesn’t go away if left alone and can actually be healthy when openly discussed in a meeting, the MD allowed me to use it.

    Seems like it is another example of a word that can be so misused that it gets a bad rap!

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