Con­flict can make or break your com­pa­ny. Here’s what to do when the argu­ment is unavoid­able.


7 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.


In the ear­ly 1900s, Aldi was a small fam­i­ly gro­cery store in Ger­many. After inher­it­ing the busi­ness from their father, Theodor and Karl Albrecht expand­ed their father’s sin­gle store to a chain of hun­dreds, bring­ing low cost, high-qual­i­ty gro­ceries to towns and cities across the coun­try.

In 1960, the two broth­ers had a dis­agree­ment that led to a frac­ture in the com­pa­ny, break­ing it into two inde­pen­dent busi­ness­es, Aldi Sud and Aldi Nord. Now, the two com­pa­nies com­pete glob­al­ly, with Aldi Nord own­ing Trad­er Joe’s and Aldi Sud run­ning the Ald­is in the US.

Both com­pa­nies have cult-like fol­low­ings for their inno­v­a­tive prod­uct mod­els and inex­pen­sive food, but I can’t help but won­der what kind of foothold they’d have on the mar­ket if they hadn’t split six­ty years ago. It’s hard for me to stom­ach that a busi­ness that clear­ly had stay­ing pow­er was bro­ken over a dis­agree­ment between sib­lings.

Inter­per­son­al con­flict is a large rea­son many com­pa­nies fail. It can be stress­ful, cre­ate a con­fus­ing, uncom­fort­able work­place envi­ron­ment, and nav­i­gat­ing around it is a time suck for every­one.

But con­flict can also make us bet­ter. Pro­duc­tive con­flict can accel­er­ate inno­va­tion. In addi­tion to bet­ter work out­comes, it can improve rela­tion­ships and lead to high­er job sat­is­fac­tion.

In order to engage in healthy con­flict, we need to be able to make a few base­line assump­tions.

  • All par­ties are intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est. This means they are inter­est­ed in what is true, whether or not it aligns with their per­son­al beliefs and desires. 

  • The dis­agree­ment is not per­son­al. Reflex­ive­ly, we have a ten­den­cy to think that if some­one dis­agrees with us, they are unkind or “against” us. Con­flict is not inher­ent­ly per­son­al. Shelve those judge­ments before you move for­ward.

  • Every­one is open-mind­ed to new ideas, and gen­uine­ly invest­ed in the best out­come for the com­pa­ny. Resolv­ing a con­flict can lead to improved solu­tions and bet­ter long term strat­e­gy, but if no one is will­ing to be see things dif­fer­ent­ly, it’s hard to move for­ward togeth­er.

Healthy con­flict indi­cates diverse thought pat­terns and a per­son­al stake in the work. Learn­ing how to fight well can be good for busi­ness. Here are three strate­gies to make sure you’re fight­ing towards inno­va­tion rather than destruc­tion.

Relat­ed: The 10 Ben­e­fits of Con­flict

1. Stay on the same side of the problem

When I’m get­ting frus­trat­ed— at work or at home— I remind myself that my team is just that: a team. We’re work­ing toward the same goals, shar­ing in the same tri­umphs, and work­ing through the same prob­lems. We may some­times dis­agree on strat­e­gy or the best way for­ward, but even when we are in oppo­si­tion, we’re still on the same side.

When you feel like a friend or employ­ee is your adver­sary, it’s easy to for­get that they are also doing their best. But you wouldn’t have a rela­tion­ship with or hire some­one you didn’t think was a good per­son. Part of build­ing rela­tion­ships, whether in your per­son­al life or at work, is trust. Assum­ing good inten­tions will make you a bet­ter man­ag­er. Instead of see­ing a mis­take as a per­son­al fail­ing, by giv­ing peo­ple the ben­e­fit of the doubt, you can more clear­ly see indi­vid­ual or insti­tu­tion­al skills or knowl­edge gaps, with­out putting them on the defen­sive.

While this is most­ly a mind­set shift, it can have a mean­ing­ful impact on com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Prob­lem solv­ing as a team strength­ens rela­tion­ships. Fram­ing a con­flict not as one per­son against anoth­er but rather as two peo­ple against a prob­lem mit­i­gates frus­tra­tion and improves com­mu­ni­ca­tion and out­comes. By talk­ing about what “we” want ver­sus what “I” want, you’re sig­nal­ing that you care about a pos­i­tive out­come and that you’re invest­ed in the long-term via­bil­i­ty of a solu­tion for both sides.

I don’t find argu­ing enjoy­able. It’s why I’m an entre­pre­neur, not a lawyer. If I’m frus­trat­ed, I start repeat­ing myself and have the urge to say things I know I’ll regret. When an argu­ment reach­es the point that it’s no longer pro­duc­tive, I take a break.

2. You don’t always have to be right

Some­times, I’ll walk away from a tense con­ver­sa­tion and have trou­ble even recount­ing what we talked about. I’ll remem­ber how I felt and what I said, but I won’t remem­ber what points the oth­er guy made, just that they were wrong. This is com­mon. When peo­ple argue, they often have two sim­i­lar but par­al­lel con­ver­sa­tions. They focus on being right and express­ing their point of view rather than lis­ten­ing, lev­el-set­ting, and prob­lem-solv­ing.

The need to be right can be a death knell for rela­tion­ships, both per­son­al­ly and pro­fes­sion­al­ly. While it’s a total­ly under­stand­able, nat­ur­al instinct, if you’re endeav­or­ing only to be right, you’re miss­ing the point of the con­flict. Con­flict can be a pro­duc­tive oppor­tu­ni­ty for two peo­ple to express their points of view, be heard, and learn. If you’re only wor­ried about win­ning, you’re lim­it­ing the pos­i­tive impact of the expe­ri­ence.

As a leader and prod­uct spe­cial­ist, much of the time, I may believe that I’m right. But unless I can help my team at Jot­Form under­stand and build con­sen­sus, being right doesn’t do much to move the com­pa­ny for­ward. In per­son­al rela­tion­ships, there’s no fun in being right if your friend stops tak­ing your calls.

Relat­ed: 4 Strate­gies for Reduc­ing Work­place Con­flict

3. Let people help you

In a lot of social inter­ac­tions, and espe­cial­ly in the start­up world, peo­ple seem to feel like they can’t ask for help. Some­times, they think it’s a sign of weak­ness or like the sense of sov­er­eign­ty that comes from doing things entire­ly on their own. Often, peo­ple feel like ask­ing for help is a bur­den that will make peo­ple resent them or like them less.

Accord­ing to psy­chol­o­gists, the exact oppo­site is true. It’s called the Ben­jamin Franklin effect. The premise is that some­one who has already done you a favor is more like­ly to do you anoth­er favor than if you’d done one for them. The under­ly­ing the­o­ry is based on cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Basi­cal­ly, we ratio­nal­ize our actions and our feel­ings so they are con­sis­tent with one anoth­er. Some­one who has done you a favor will ratio­nal­ize that they did it because they like you and are there­fore more like­ly to do anoth­er.

It makes sense. Being asked for help is flat­ter­ing. It indi­cates trust and admi­ra­tion of exper­tise. By ask­ing for help instead of lead­ing with a more argu­men­ta­tive stance, you’re show­ing that you respect the oth­er per­son and that you’re try­ing to make a mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion. Peo­ple who ask for help are per­ceived as more com­pe­tent than peo­ple who don’t. Of course, be care­ful not to over­do it, and always show your appre­ci­a­tion.

Relat­ed: Sev­en Win­ning Nego­ti­a­tion Strate­gies For Any Sit­u­a­tion

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