Embracing Conflict

As a kid, I was very uncomfortable with conflict. I wanted everyone to get along, and when they didn’t, it made me uneasy and anxious. I often tried to solve problems that weren’t really mine, and was eager to build bridges between people in an effort to keep the peace.

Early in my career, as a newly promoted manager in video games, I continued to struggle with conflict, as I interpreted all argument as discord, and I believed it was my responsibility to maintain harmony within the team in order to keep people motivated and moving forward. Once, in a technical team meeting, a discussion about how to approach a challenging new feature turned into a particularly heated argument. As was normal for me, I waded in and tried to diffuse the tension before it got out of hand. A software engineer (who I have since thanked) turned to me and told me that, by trying to make everyone get along, I was in fact blocking creativity and the healthy flow of ideas.

Rather than creating harmony, I was interfering with the sometimes messy process of solving problems, and I needed to stop seeing disagreement (and even anger) as negative. I needed to let the team solve their own problems and learn through the process of decision-making, especially mistakes. I couldn’t protect them from taking a wrong turn, and more importantly, I shouldn’t.

As a consultant, I often work with new managers who are trying to find their “sea legs” within a leadership role. As subject matter or craft experts, they have been effective and experienced, and this excellence has been rewarded with a promotion to manager. The challenge of transitioning effectively from “getting it done” to “getting it done through others” can sometimes take a competent and respected worker by surprise and make them feel uncertain about how to measure their own success. As a result, they can slip into a pattern of solving problems that are no longer theirs, as that is much more comfortable.

I recently read a very insightful article by Joseph Grenny, calledWhen to Solve Your Team’s Problems, and When to Let Them Sort it Out . In the article, Grenny says this: “Prior to taking a management role, you can measure your contribution to the organization by counting the number of important problems you solve. But the day you become a manager, the arithmetic changes. Your success is no longer measured by how many problems you solve. Instead, your role is to build a team that solves problems.”

Solving other people’s problems and putting out fires takes a lot of time and energy. It’s unproductive and doesn’t teach others the skills they need to solve their own issues creatively. Worse still, it doesn’t allow for the learning and growing confidence that comes as a healthy by-product of tackling challenge and conflict.

In his article, Grenny also explains why effective managers first ask, “Who should own this problem?” As a manager, leader, and parent, I often find myself in situations where I need to make a conscious decision to either step in or step aside, and asking to whom the problem really belongs is a very effective filter to use.

 I have never forgotten that meeting early in my career as a manager and the advice to change my point of view to see healthy conflict as a catalyst to problem solving. I have spent many years learning to appreciate the benefits of clashing and passionately fighting for what you believe is right. Today, I enjoy coaching others through their own discomfort to see that conflict can often be a key component to getting to the right and best answer.