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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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