Aside

The Argument for Fighting

Conflict_high_performance

Ever have the flu but still have to go to the office? A functional culture is like that. It’s sufferable and not deadly; so, we plod on.

A bad culture is one we run from; we can see or feel that something is missing either in direction, values, protocols or results. But functional cultures are ones where it doesn’t hurt that much, so we continue going in and hoping things will turn out for the best. And, high performance cultures are ones where there is trust and a set of human dynamics that says that we are in this together. (I’ve written on 3 elements of a high-performance culture for BusinessInsider and about Apple’s start-up culture for Business Week that show my foundational views of how to think about these norms.)
One area where the stark differences between Functional (think: good) and High-Performance (think: great) shows up is in how groups deal with conflict.
In bad cultures, conflict typically takes the form of passive-aggressive behavior. It might look like a colleague who won’t tell you that he violently disagree with you, but will underfund your initiative or avoid allocating resources to it until it dies a slow and painful death.  In Functional cultures, it’s not that he won’t tell you; he just won’t tell you until he needs to tell you. Probably a bit too late to plan ahead and make different choices. In great high-performance cultures, the group’s goal is to deal with issues upfront so you grow forward, consciously choosing things that increase productivity/profitability for the whole.
Now that all sounds good, but it is incredibly difficult to do in real life because this means you have to deal with discomfort, as you deal with tough issues.
Brett Hurt, Founder and CEO of Bazaarvoiceshared his story of what this looks like:
“At our exec team meeting, we work through a lot of issues; when a new thing comes up, we stop the meeting until all the people who are involved with that issue can be in the room. Calls are made, people pulled in, etc so we can have the discussion of what’s really going on, with everyone involved able to shape the dialogue.
We are incredibly healthy in how we debate. But it’s not easy. We hire people smarter than ourselves and then we involve them in the discussion. And sometimes that means we have fierce conversations that are volatile, hard, and ultimately messy. Would it be nice if our executive team never disagreed? Heck, Yes!
And do I want — say — my sales person to necessarily see all those disagreements? I wish we didn’t have disagreements but that’s not reality in any business. So I do want him to see and participate in those messy conversations, because I want him to understand how a decision got made. Then he walks out knowing it wasn’t a political decision behind his back, but a set of hard trade offs that we made, together.”
Tough conversations are messy conversations because the process usually yields some insight that one thing matters more than another or that we’re trading some things now to achieve some other things later. By hiding all that, there would be questions or doubt.
By sharing the (potential) disagreements openly, trust happens.
If you are moving from conflict averse, to having tough conversations, some guidelines to follow:- Tough conversations should not be focused on pushing information at people. Your goal in these conversations is to inform each other about what you see, why you see it that way, how you feel, what you believe to be true, and what you believe is important for them to understand.
- Leave room for everyone to think their own thoughts and have their own understandings. The words you use, the tone you use, and the context you set will all make a difference in how others respond.
- Name with what matters most in the outcome, and set the context for what you want. This can sound like: “For me, what I most want to do is to create a shared understanding….” Or “we must win this account at all costs because it is our toe-hold into a new market.” Sharing what is important to you may seem like common sense, but without it, people do not know your intention or what has meaning or importance in this conversation.  It is not enough to know your intention; you must communicate it to the group.
- Say exactly and specifically what you want people to understand. Use as many distinctions as needed. It is not enough to describe something as “blue” if what you really mean is “turquoise.” Don’t rely on subtext. Don’t expect them to “figure it out.” You are responsible for calling a spade a spade. Use proof points when you can. For example, “I believe the issue is turquoise because of these three points of fact….”
- Leave room for new information. Present everything as “early findings,” not truth. The word “truth” has a charge to it. The phrase “early findings” suggests you are doing good discovery and your observations are for the team to understand together.
- Avoid easing in. The work of Chris Argyris has introduced this concept of “easing in,” which is where you try and soften a message by delivering it indirectly through hints and leading questions. Easing in conveys that you have a point of view you are unwilling to share directly, which suggests that the issue is embarrassing or shameful. A better approach is to make the subject clear and discussable by stating your thoughts straight out and indicating that you are interested in working on solving the situation.
- Just like in any other personal relationship, avoid using the word “you” when you are about to critique something. Rather than saying, “Your ideas are unclear,” you can say, “I need more clarity on those ideas.” You can state your perceptions, feelings, and assumptions, but you should not state other people’s assumptions and feelings.
- Look for ways to paint a picture or use an analogy. Sometimes this helps the data-driven folks and the social-context folks to arrive at some shared way of looking at a situation.
- Ask people to comment on what they see differently and why. Remember the goal in all messy tough situations is a shared understanding. You want to make sure everyone sees things fully and expansively (versus agreeing). Clarity and understanding is what you seek.

If you face your tough issues directly, the team will learn they can handle anything. They will not come apart, they will not be punished for not knowing the answer already, they will learn what they need to learn. High performance comes when people realize they can do many things, well. Yes, even the fights.

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7 Responses:

  1. gorgeoux. December 5, 2010 at 8:51 pm  |  

    Have been thinking about this. It strikes me as a very valid split. However, most people with whom I work are in the first and second column, when not oscillating between them. How do I get them into the third, beyond inspiring through my actions, stories, suggestions?

    Reply
  2. Nilofer Merchant. December 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm  |  

    Getting people to take on tough conversations is really about inviting them into dialogue. So you could say “Can we talk about this?” or “Let’s see if we fully understand this, so we can work together on fixing it”. Inviting dialogue (and then using the guidelines I offer in having tough conversations) could get people into the 3rd arena.

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  3. Nilofer Merchant. December 6, 2010 at 10:08 pm  |  

    @gorgeoux Perhaps I can turn the question back to you: How would/do you involve people & shift culture so tough issues are dealt with?

    Reply
  4. gorgeoux. December 6, 2010 at 11:55 pm  |  

    Good ideas, but they hardly work with anyone I know. Education and culture obviously play a big role. Yet that is just the tip of the iceberg.In order to have dialogue, thus exchange of views, thus potentially change, all parts have got to care about the issue at hand.So the greater question for me is: How do you make people care? How do you connect what they already care about to what they should care about, too?In a Western culture of middle class values, caring about an easy life, at best, and having no ambition past a comfy wages, how do you inspire people to want more for themselves and others, and make it happen?

    Reply
  5. Nilofer Merchant. December 7, 2010 at 1:34 am  |  

    If you truly are working with people who are just there to collect a paycheck, then there’s no chance you’ll get to the “great” category. What you are talking about is whether you have a shared mission, a reason to give a shit…or rather WHY do you guys all show up (besides the paycheck). It is my experience that most people REALLY want to give a shit. If you/your team/the company doesn’t have a good mission, then the lack of passion is (somewhat) understandable. So maybe starting with that. I think Simon Sinek’s book, called Start with Why could help.

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  6. gorgeoux. December 8, 2010 at 11:05 pm  |  

    Thank you for the kind offer over DM :) To clarify, this is not about my company or my country only. And it’s not about what people do at work only, either (because discussing the company mission surely isn’t a common behaviour, so I wouldn’t expect it to happen and, less so, to produce positive change), as they should be capable of performance in anything (from bringing up children to unloading the dishwasher).The questions I’m asking are about the values of the Western world, a world 1. becoming comfortable and complacent (as there’s no basic hunger to drive people to do more with their lives, physically and intellectually), 2. having an education system that doesn’t cover emotional intelligence (or at least soft skills) and critical thinking (thus not preparing one for life), and 3. having companies that produce average products/ services with average employees for average consumers.Most people I meet today across the world, in Western and Westernised countries (the latter, through our commercial and cultural exports), just want to have fun and live not so differently from their parents, perhaps with less stress and more comfort. Learn nothing much. Create nothing much, because even when there’s some get up and go, they run out of steam quickly. Inspire nothing much. Nevermind changing the world!Of course, there are some giving a (little) shit, and then even less, but still some giving (a lot) of shit :) I can only hope that I’m among the latter and will succeed far easier than I could’ve done in my grandparents’ generation, when the majority was focused, and working hard. However, to succeed I need to work with, or brush against a lot more people not giving a shit, and that’s something that bewilders and challenges me daily. Yes, it will make me a better person, etc., but what a strange problem to have, don’t you think?

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  7. Nilofer Merchant. December 9, 2010 at 7:27 pm  |  

    The people who give a shit (or a lot of it)… are the ones that lead a culture. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the quieter majority don’t do. It’s what those of us with passion do, do. I believe you are underestimating those people who you deem to be sitting back and getting a paycheck. They may not express it in the same way, but let’s not judge people’s insides when we don’t know them.

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