Why fighting is good for companies (as long as no one hits below the belt)
by Kate Pavao, February 2010
In The Right Fight, Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer argue, “It’s a common misconception that teamwork is all about agreement.” Instead, teams should share a goal, they say, but disagree big time about how to reach it. Here, Dr. Joni, a business strategist, adviser, and founder and CEO of Cambridge International Group, tells Profit Online readers why they need to take the gloves off — and how to ensure a fair fight.
Profit Online: What is a Right Fight?
Joni: I have never yet seen an organization of any size where there isn’t some kind of tension, competition or disagreement going on, either overtly or covertly. Lots of times that energy is misdirected, but there are times when we need each others’ dissonance, when we need to compete with each other to find an answer that is as of yet unknown, where we need a breakthrough. A Right Fight is a fight about what matters. What problems are we facing that need the conflict to get to something bigger? Then we need to fight in a way that honors and respects everyone involved. At the end of a Right Fight, relationships should deepen rather than fracture.
Profit Online: Why should leaders be paying attention to creating Right Fights right now?
Joni: With the crash of 2008, this work has become much more important. Organizations everywhere are facing very stark choices as we head into 2010. How do we cut cost and grow for the future? Our book is one of the first to try to create a practical guide for people to understand that we are going to live with some level of conflict. This book is a toolbox for how to use those tensions to create results.
This skill needs to be built in leaders at every level. And the good news is, it’s learnable. In the end, done right, you’ll actually builds relationships, trust, character, and capacity to do more than you thought possible. These are all things that we very much need in these times, not only at the top of our organizations, but also throughout.
There has been a lot of work on alignment, which by the way, is great work — you have to be on the same page to actually fight well. But a lot of people I saw were shutting down and not saying what they needed to say. Or people were working on alignment when really what they needed to be working on was making their tensions, their competitions and their conflicts productive.
Profit Online: How do executives keep it safe to have conflicts?
Joni: The first thing is that fights have to be about the ideas, not about the people involved. The second thing is, make it a sport, not a war. That means, there are real rules and there is someone neutral enough to be a fair referee. It means that the playing field isn’t so tilted that the one team doesn’t have a chance. This is where relationships and alignment come in: By trusting each other even when you’re disagreeing, you know how to pull back when it’s getting too hot. The final thing is to honor all outcomes and all contestants. Leadership needs to respect everyone who competed well and honestly so they go on to be able to compete the next time with new strengths and capacity.