When I got out of engineering school, it was natural to take the competitive, intellectually show-offy mindset we all had in college into the workplace. I was developing software, and so there were constant battles to discuss how to design a certain piece of code or construct a test scenario. I remember these times fondly. The arguments were loud but respectful, and it seemed most of the time the right answer came out of them.
Then I got into management, and gradually it seemed that the competitive mindset that had worked so well for me as a technician wasn’t as useful. Arguments got bound up in power dynamics, and I ran into countless examples of unproductive rivalry among groups in the same company. “If only we fought the competition with the intensity we use to fight amongst ourselves…”
So I began to value collegiality, consensus, and getting along. It seemed if you were a senior leader you had a duty to be a team player. Of course conflicts played out, but they were behind the scenes, not discussed in the meeting but in the “meeting after the meeting.” Looking back on it, though the pay was good, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as arguing with John Cooper in front of a white board over a payment-assessment algorithm.
So when I read “The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value,” by Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, it made me wish it had come out ten years earlier. Far from seeing conflict as vice and consensus as virtue, Joni and Beyer make the strong case that without conflict organizations cannot thrive and, furthermore, that management can create the right conditions for productive conflict.
One reason to shy away from conflict is the cost of being on the losing end of the battle. Joni and Beyer maintain that effective leaders create fairly-judged fights where misbehavior is punished and losers are given seats at the table and appreciated for their efforts. Most importantly, perhaps, the fights need to be about issues vital to the firm. The authors boil these ideas down into six principles:
Picking the Right Fights:
1. Make It Material
2. Focus on the Future, not the Past
3. Pursue a Noble Purpose
Right Fight Discipline:
4. Make It Sport, not War
5, Structure Formally, Work Informally
6. Turn Pain into Gain
It’s an important book on an overlooked (you might say “out of favor”) topic. But that’s what makes it worth reading right now. If all our company’s alignment and consensus is still leaving us underperforming, perhaps it’s time to start scrapping again.