Chris Furnell

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In a world searching for meaning, conflict offers the opportunity to understand the depth behind individual contribution and to talk openly about the third alternative; because there is rarely only two.

We need conflict, it helps to challenge our unconscious bias. Without it, only familiar ideas survive.

Too often we seek out people or data which validates our thinking, rather than disproves it.

“Rivalry or conflict is a catalyst in the development of ideas, as two people go further, act braver
and achieve more, than they might have done cooperating”

Sam Conniff Allende positions a fascinating account of how pirates, in the golden age, would run rings around the performance of your team. Perhaps the title of his book (Be More Pirate) isn’t your usual taste, but can you really afford to rely on preferences given the unpredictable nature of business? Perhaps ‘harnessing the full potential of your team in order to navigate the choppy seas between 2019 and 2025’ sounds more palatable? In either case, give it a read.

Ever since reading it I’ve found myself reflecting on an observation: an unhealthy obsession with keeping the peace and being polite; over use of words like compatibility, suitability and consistency.

It’s conscious…
The world demands more agility, yet we’re busy sourcing new people to organisations who match criteria of rigid job specs. Focused on suitability to role, rather than context. A preference to fit someone into a box, rather than letting them construct and craft it themselves. They should be showing you the way, not the other way around.

…and unconscious…
Remember the other day, when that individual didn’t quite deliver? I suspect that whilst you were blaming them (in your head), you’re quickly finding all of their faults, however if you were the one being blamed, you’re acutely aware of all of the circumstances that led to the problem and why you acted the way you did. You’re busy rationalising your faults so they’re compatible with the outcome, but quick to skip this step when it’s someone else? We perceive ourselves as being responsive to the situation, while others as motivated by their character. You’re right, they’re wrong. An attempt to fit them into your view of the world. Defensiveness over empathy.

…so, what if:
• rather than driving fast for a right answer, dismissing one another’s actions or responses in
the process, you sought to truly understand and use your differences?
• the best outcome was the result of really healthy conflict?

The impact of social, economic and geopolitical events hasn’t helped the negative perception of conflict and rivalry.

Donald Trump? Theresa May? Brexit? Plastic? Marmite?

It’s no coincidence that the vote is won on marginal victory. Polarisation is the new norm; with half of the population hating the other half. The feeling is mutual. To think that each vote ought to be a rational one, with little emotion?

I wonder whether it was a coincidence you clicked on this article. My guess is just a few minutes ago you were scrolling your device. Did you notice themes?

Chances are the ones that generate intense emotion are the ones being liked, shared and commented on. And considering the climate, intense emotion usually means hate rather than love.

And here I am trying to convince you that you should approach conflict with love, not hate?

Let’s turn to sport for a moment so we can understand how to be comfortable with tension.

Imagine being a Williams sister? Rivalry at home and work, pushing each other at every opportunity. Didn’t work out too bad, right?

What about rivalry for positions. Take some of the world’s most elite football clubs, Manchester City for example. At any given time, their substitute bench is worth more than the entire starting 11 of the opposing team. Regular starting positions are rare and almost every position in the team is double resourced.

What’s the impact on an individual mindset and performance with this level of intense internal rivalry? An environment full of tension, but at the same time passionately united.

Where would Lewis Hamilton be if Nico Rosberg never learnt to drive? Would Apple be as iconic if Microsoft didn’t exist? And what about the Virgin brand?

So if there’s one thing we could all learn from this, it’s that emotions are driving performance, not just skill.

I’ve wrote about this before and I’m going to repeat it again. It really is time to look beyond ‘specialisms’ and ‘suitability to role’ if you want to survive the merger of technology and human capability.

Start looking for really interesting people that offer something completely different to what you already have.

It’s about mixing different people together that will naturally like and dislike one another. Be honest with everyone upfront: that you’re welcoming conflict and using their difference for a more positive outlook.

Give them the space to create legacy and encourage them to job craft. Shift from ‘team fit’ to ‘team difference’.

Pirates developed faster than the ‘establishment’ due to their conflict and rivalry, and when it came to battle with the real enemy, they united. The same in sport, pushing each other to exponential results. And quite frankly the same can be said about most families. In these contexts, people value empathy over defensiveness, they hold tension and they use conflict for a better outlook.

They also value and invite difference.

In the business context, the topic of diversity has long been about protected characteristics. But to truly galvanise the diversity in a team, I’d encourage you to add character to this list: Rebel or conformist? Prover or pleaser? Entrepreneur or follower?

Hire to what you need. Value the truth, over politeness.

Be more courageous with your questions; imagine for a moment you’re interviewing someone new or sourcing internal colleagues for a project. Why not start with:

“Tell me something you believe is true, but you have a hard time trying to convince others of”

You need a diverse group who are comfortable to handle the truth, so craft questions that will draw out extreme difference.

So why aren’t we embracing conflict more often? ‘Collaboration’ exists in many forms; the most common generates a safe, polite and comforting feeling.

I’m encouraging you to think of a different type of togetherness. I’m pointing to situations that are often avoided or mediated, ones of intensity and difference.

The successful coming together of technology and human capability demands a different mindset. In the context of relationships and communication, it demands:
• Principles over rules
• A rewiring of our brain to respond positively to conflict, opting for empathy over defensiveness
• Each of us to become more comfortable with holding tension
• An acceptance that emotions are driving performance, not just skill
• And an open invitation for difference, using conflict to fuel innovation

Chris Furnell – Learning & OD Practitioner