Ok ladies and gentlemen, I want a fair fight, we know the rules – all above board and above the belt.
Can a good ol’ fisticuffs really be good in the workplace? Can it be good for business, can it improve the bottom line, and the seemingly most outlandish suggestion, can it be good for engagement?
However, to my surprise, once laid out with sensible logic, I begin to see that it actually can be.
‘How to Pick a Good Fight’ is a very interesting article from Harvard Business Review (2009).
“ …a peaceful, harmonious workplace can be the worst possible thing for a business, according to consultancy eePulse, which conducts in-depth surveys that measure employee engagement.” (HBR)
Amongst others, the article quotes the case of Lehman Brothers, that had a culture rife with self-serving, short-sighted behaviours, all circulating around the attitude of it’s all about me, my job, my people and my pay. In the lead up to 2007, it transformed itself into a completely harmonious corporate organism.
– after you, no you, no you, no really, I insist… –
It was in that Zen like state the organisation found itself, that everything began to unfold. The culture that accepted, respected and didn’t challenge, turned out to be counter productive and downright dangerous. And of course, the rest is unpleasant history we are all still living through. The point is, in this case, had there been an opportunity, a propensity, a culture where an appropriate challenge was acceptable and respected, perhaps the potentially catastrophic deficiencies may have been dragged out in to the light of day. They may have been scrutinised and addressed before the avalanche brought the mountainside crashing down.
Ever felt something was really wrong at work but didn’t feel you could say or do anything about it?
The article talks about the obvious need for alignment to manage change, but what about this:
“for large-scale change or innovation initiatives, a healthy dose of dissent is usually just as important. Within an acceptable range of competition and tension, science shows, dissent will fire up more of an individual’s brain, stimulating more pathways and engaging more creative centres. In short, more of what makes people unique, innovative, and passionate is available for use.” (HBR)
Makes you want to stand up from your desk and go start an argument somewhere, doesn’t it?
OK, fact is, Lehman didn’t have it right when they were bickering any more than when they were working in perfect concert. A good workplace fight is a good clean fight for the right reasons and these are also discussed in the article.
So how do you have a good clean fight that is successful and in the best interests of business?
Make it Material
If there is going to be a fight, then it has to be worth the potential bruises, sweat and tears. It has to be for a cause where the stakes are high and where the outcome has the potential to change the game as we know it. People will only have a good fight if it’s for something they believe in. We don’t want to start a conflict, then have half the armed forces throw the towel in midway because they’ve lost interest in, or sight of the cause.
Focus on the future
I really like this point. It’s all about the future, not the past. There is only so much we can learn from past mistakes. And that’s all our review of the past should be, Lessons Learned. There is no value at all in desperately searching for where you can cast the blame, identify a scapegoat etc. In fact, retrospective navel gazing is an expensive waste of business time and resources and should be frowned upon. There is also little value in planning your future based on trying to sort out the deficiencies of past performance. Once you have positioned your business where it should be, i.e. right size, right processes, right people etc, then you need to let go of the past and focus forward.
Pursue a noble purpose
We have talked a lot about how people who work with a sense of purpose are far more engaged as a rule. We have marveled at how Not for Profits can do such good business, and that it’s clear that profits, pay and perks aren’t the only drivers of engagement. So fight for a purpose, a noble cause. Fight for something that means something real and personal for your employees and for your clients.
The Final Wrap
The point of all this is: let’s not make our workplaces so clinically pleasant that people aren’t prepared to stand up for what they believe in, to explore opportunities, to do things differently. Let’s encourage people to challenge the status quo, to make each of us, to make leaders accountable. Let’s give people the confidence to respectfully ignite debate. Let’s create the competition that generates creativity. There is only one exciting way forward, and that’s by doing something different, unexpected and challenging.
Please provide your feedback. It would be good to hear your positive experiences of workplace conflict.
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Many thanks to James Westmore for his wonderful artwork.