It's Up to You to Start a Good FightRobert Sutton
Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 3, 2010 9:42 AM
In the most effective teams in organizations, people fight with each other. As the boss, is it your job to try to stop that? No, quite the contrary: Creating conditions where people feel safe to fight is a hallmark of the greatest bosses. In this post I'll offer some Queensbury rules to make sure the fights stay focused on ideas and take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. But first I'll come out swinging, by taking on anyone who thinks fighting should be suppressed.
I'll start with the one-two punch of Brad Bird and Bob Taylor—both examples of bosses I especially admire in this regard. Brad Bird is the Academy Award-winning director from Pixar who worked on both The Incredibles and Ratatouille. When a group of us interviewed him for McKinsey Quarterly, he continually emphasized how the success of these two films depended on constant and constructive battles. Bird had his own passionate opinions, and he realized that everyone who really cared about the success of the project did, too. As the director, he understood that a big part of his job was to create enough trust so people could fight over decisions big and small. If you want to see what constructive conflict looks like, check out the bonus material on the DVD of The Incredibles. It is filled with great fights, which are presided over, and sometimes started, by Brad Bird. One is about just how much of a receding hairline to put on the aging superhero, Bob Parr. Another clip (this one available on YouTube) shows Bird at battle with producer John Walker. I especially love when Walker says "I'm just trying to herd you toward the finish—I'm just trying to get us across the line," and Bird answers "I'm trying to get us across the line in first place." The tension between them is high but constructive.
I suspect that a lot more of you have heard of Brad Bird than Bob Taylor—but Taylor probably has had a bigger influence on your life. The researchers he funded and guided in the 1960s developed, among other things, ARPANET, the forerunner to the Internet. In Dealers of Lightning, author Michael Hiltzik depicts how Taylor conducted meetings among the super-smart people whose research his group at the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded:
The daily discussions unfolded in a pattern that remained peculiar to Taylor's management style throughout his career. Each participant got an hour or so to describe his work. Then he would be thrown to the mercy of the assembled court like a flank steak to pack of ravenous wolves. "I got them to argue with each other," Taylor recalled with unashamed glee… "These were people who cared about their work… If there were technical weak spots, they would almost always surface under these conditions. It was very, very healthy."
Taylor continued the same pattern later as assistant lab manager at Xerox PARC, where during a rather magical and now mythical period of the computer revolution, researchers developed many of the technologies we use everyday including WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processing, hypertext, laser printing, Ethernet and TCP/IP, to name just a few. At PARC, Taylor organized a weekly meeting where a different speaker each week (called "the dealer") would propose an idea and try to defend against questions and criticisms raised by some of the most critical, motivated, and brilliant engineers and researchers on the planet at the time. As Hiltzik explained:
"[I]t was not to be personal. Impugning a man's thinking was acceptable, but never his character. Taylor strived to create a democracy where everyone's ideas were impartially subject to the group's learned demolition, regardless of the proponent's credentials or rank."
Bird and Taylor are inspirational examples. But even masters like these sometimes have trouble leading constructive fights. Human groups tend to swerve towards destructive and personal conflict (because it's hard not to take an attack on your ideas personally) or toward silence and fear (because people fear the interpersonal and political consequences of attacking another person's ideas). It takes confidence and experience in team members, and healthy group and organizational norms, to stop or at least temper such dysfunctions.
So leading a good fight is a skill that can take a long time to develop. To try to accelerate that process, my Stanford colleague (and former HP executive) Debra Dunn and I have been pulling together a list of methods. Here are five of the tricks used by some of the best bosses we've observed:
1. Don't let the arguing begin during the initial generation of ideas or solutions. Make it safe for people to suggest crazy or controversial ideas. After you have some ideas, then invite people to push back on them.
2. Bring everyone into the fray. Gently rein in people who talk too much and encourage those who are silent to speak up.
3. Don't just listen to people's words, watch non-verbal behavior. Are they smiling? Really listening? Glaring, smirking, or rolling their eyes? Model constructive non-verbal behavior and coach people who (perhaps unwittingly) interject negative expressions.
4. Learn people's quirks. Some have remarkably thick skins; nastiness doesn't faze them. Others are so thin-skinned that even gentle critiques send them into a rage or a funk.
5. After the fight is over, do some backstage work. Soothe those who feel personally attacked and whose ideas were shot down. If anyone made personal attacks, call them on it and coach them to do otherwise.
Most of all, you need to not only hone the fighting skills of your team but model them yourself. That means really considering those different views and, when others have proven you wrong, identified flaws in your work, or developed better ideas, surrendering gracefully and getting on to the next decision worth fighting about.
One of my academic heroes, Karl Weick, puts it this way: You need to "fight as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong." It's a theme that runs through his extensive writings on sensemaking, decisions, and effective action in organizations—especially in "high reliability organizations" that can't afford not to arrive at the best course of action.
I draw more on Weick's thinking and dig further into the steps that it takes to lead a good fight in Good Boss, Bad Boss. But I wonder, as you think back on fights won and lost in your organization—or good fights that never got fought—what additional tips would you suggest?
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