Conflict is key to learning and innovation

We’re often presented with a wide range of dilemmas in the workplace that highlight our fear of confrontations. Maybe someone stole one of your ideas and didn’t give you credit, but you’re too scared to confront them about it. Usually, we’d rather let it slide than to initiate a conflict, even if this means compromising our own well-being and integrity. Our fear of conflicts affects not only our private lives and personal relationships, but also our behavior in the workplace – behaviors that neither you nor the company benefit from.

You’re shooting yourself (and your workplace) in the foot

This fear of conflict can harm the entire company as well as the individual employee. A scenario to illustrate this point might be:


You never say no to all the extra tasks you’re constantly being asked to take on, most of which you don’t even think are worth your while to begin with. Instead of confronting your boss, you suck it up, but you feel the stress building up inside because you don’t have enough time on your hands. Not only are you stressed, you start to feel contempt for your boss because you don’t feel respected, and your well-being decreases drastically.


Too much work and a negative relationship with your boss can be the beginning of a vicious circle, which may end up in stress leave, all because you failed to confront your boss. It’s never a good thing for the company when an employee goes on any type of sick leave, but this fear of confrontation also affects the company in other ways. For instance, it’s quite common for superiors to accept the fact that their employees are underperforming, which gives other, more hardworking employees an even greater workload. In this way, the company is hit by unnecessary inefficiency, which is problematic because efficiency is what makes the company go around. Furthermore, it may be an obstacle for innovation, because we’d rather stay silent than pitch an alternative way of doing things.


Amazon: Conflicts lead to innovation

One example of a company that has created a culture in which no one fears confrontations is Amazon. Tony Galbato, head of human resources in Amazon, said “It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.” Part of the Amazon culture is to avoid compromises, because it’s vital that the best idea is chosen to keep growing – not a watered-down version of it. Employees are instructed to “rip into colleagues’ ideas with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.” This philosophy has created enormous efficiency, innovation and growth at Amazon, and if they do not uphold this point of view, Jeff Bezos fears that Amazon will become a country club like Microsoft. In his own words: “If Amazon becomes like Microsoft, we will die.”


Former Amazonian: “Nearly every person I worked with I saw cry at their desk.”

As indicated by the subheading, it can have great negative consequences for the employees if the organizational culture is drenched in competition and conflict. There’s a demand to speak up with ideas and feedback, but at the same time, if your idea is not well received, you can be absolutely sure to find out – and not in a very considerate way. At Amazon, employees’ skills aren’t always acknowledged, which decreases well-being, as seen in the internally used phrase: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” If your skills aren’t acknowledged, you may experience a decrease in motivation, which may be why only 15% of employees at Amazon have stayed for more than 5 years. Conflict may be good, but only to a certain point if you still want to maintain a positive organizational culture. So how do we find the balance?


The key is thoughtful disagreement

“When two people believe opposing things, chances are one of them is wrong. It pays to find out if that someone is you,” says Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. Ray Dalio developed the term thoughtful disagreement to highlight the fact that the point of conflict is not to convince the other person that you’re right. The point is to figure out who’s right by listening to each other. For this to make sense, it’s important for both sides to try not to overlook important perspectives, and “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Conflicts aren’t about winners and losers, but about the possibility to learn something new. In this respect, Dalio claims that the winner of a conflict is someone who ends up with the feeling of having learned something.


Take the conflict for humanity

Conflicts and confrontations aren’t to be avoided at all costs – neither at work nor in our private lives. With this mindset, conflicts aren’t negative, but the key to learning and innovation. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood, and you’ll have the foundation for a good exchange of views. As Ray Dalio points out, the consequences of avoiding conflicts are huge, because “holding wrong opinions in one’s head and making bad decisions based on them instead of having thoughtful disagreements is one of the greatest tragedies of mankind.”


If you sit back now and in all honesty just want people to listen to your perspectives this article might be just for you: Charisma – God’s gift or a quality you can develop? 

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