Why you need to embrace fighting with your co-workers

The road to harmony often means getting your hands dirty.

  • The latest issue of Harvard Business Review's OnPoint is dedicated to arguing well at work.
  • Embracing conflict leads to innovation and growth, while avoiding it stifles the work culture.
  • Learning how to fight well is best for both the company and the welfare of its employees.

Even ambitious companies that stake their claim on a moral high ground cannot avoid basic biology: humans were designed to fight. This evolutionary impulse might have transformed from physical battles to perceived sleights shared through gossip, but there is no avoiding arguments. Whether management and HR steps in to squash a battle or the tension simmers under the surface, conflict is a natural state of being. Rather than avoiding it, we should embrace it.

That's the focus of the latest issue of Harvard Business Review's OnPoint, 124 pages dedicated to "the right way to fight at work." As the entire collection of articles argues, fighting well leads to innovation, while stifling fights or relying on upper management to sort out skirmishes only foments distrust and anger.

Two months ago I began working as a director for a decentralized blockchain cooperative. My wife, a longtime fan of HBR, just happened to pick up this special edition, which has proved quite useful. Working for a global organization, most communications with my co-workers are through Zoom, Discord, and email. As we know, digital conversations are subject to misinterpretation.

While I enjoy the convenience of working from a laptop, in-person dialogues are the most effective means for avoiding misunderstanding. Yet that's not the world many of us live in today. While I suggest purchasing the entire magazine for a deep dive into these ideas, what follows are recaps of a few highlights — articles that stood out — from those pages.

Article: Want collaboration? Accept — and actively manage — conflict

The desire for constant harmony, write Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, can obstruct engaging teamwork. If you're in a good romantic relationship or friendship, your loved one doesn't always let you off the hook. Just as we tear our muscles during exercise to make them stronger, constructive criticism helps us become better people. This applies at work as well.

The escalation of conflict provides the framework for coaching, they write. Running to higher-ups doesn't work as it pushes the context of the conflict — often opposing — onto others without addressing the source of it. A conflict resolution strategy is a valuable asset, but it must involve the workers directly. Otherwise, hierarchy creates a power vacuum. Resentment builds on the side that "loses." They think they'll get the next "win," which both negates context and source. This zero-sum mentality never ends well. You've got to work through conflict, not push it aside or pretend it doesn't exist.

The authors warn of three popular myths of collaboration:

Effective collaboration means "teaming." This is fine for team-building, but the most common areas of conflict occur during "the rapid and unstructured interactions between different groups within the organization." Teamwork training, they conclude, does not teach you how to work together when your department has opposing objectives with another department, a common source of tension.

An effective incentive system will ensure collaboration. Incentives are like a quick hit of dopamine after indulging a sugar fix instead of the slow pleasure of serotonin when eating a well-balanced meal. They promote a culture of individual success, not cross-company collaboration.

Organizations can be structured for collaboration. Bringing people together is the easy part. Making them work well together, another story entirely. You're going to get your hands dirty at some point. Embrace it; learn from it.

Photo: rawpixel / Unsplash

Article: How to disagree with someone more powerful than you

Companies are filled with constant power struggles. There's always what I call the security guard complex: give someone a little area of power and they exploit it to the fullest. (This term came from observing certain guards' attitudes when working in Manhattan office buildings.) From tribes to city-states, hierarchies have always existed. Learning to work within this structure is vital to the health of the organization.

In this article, Amy Gallo offers essential snippets of advice, such as being realistic about the risks of voicing your dissension, identifying shared goals, remaining calm, and asking permission to disagree. Displaying humility and requesting that your opinion be heard before launching into a frontal assault are two ways to set the stage. Restating the initial point shows that you have a firm grasp of what's being discussed, so you can argue your point more substantially. Most importantly, voicing an opposing viewpoint is more valuable than going along with something you don't agree with. If the company's success is to be placed first, it will require the shedding of many egos: the one that thinks its opinion is right and the one too fearful of dissent.

Article: Find the coaching in criticism

When I was the managing editor of an international music magazine, I worked with a freelance team of about two dozen writers. Many loved being edited, something I learned early in my career thanks to incredible editors in Princeton and New York. Sometimes I submitted 500-word pieces that were returned with 1,000 words of criticism. It makes you think more clearly about what you're putting in front of the world. Some writers, however, sent seething emails if you changed a single word.

Sheila Heen and Doug Stone realize that many workers take criticism too personally. That's why they recommend to "disentangle the 'what' from the 'who,'" which is the best piece of advice in their article. How many times have you been told something valuable by someone you don't like? It's easy to scream out the reasons they're wrong. But if you listen to what's being said instead of who's saying it, you shift the emphasis from being reactionary to being contemplative. (Of course, it's hard to take criticism from a hypocrite, but that's another story.)

Listening to criticism is a form of self-knowledge. One person tells you something, you might avoid it; 10 people, well, consider it. But even that one, coming from a co-worker, could prove insightful. "Know your tendencies" is another sliver of advice the authors offer. That means you have to know the difference between hearing and receiving information. Unpacking the feedback later on helps you integrate that knowledge into your life. Or maybe you leave it behind. Not all criticism is warranted, and some of it is simply someone else projecting their hopes and fears onto you. But often a critical eye is just what we need. It makes everyone stronger.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.