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Encourage Your Team to Have a “Good Fight”

In a 1995 interview, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was discussing the importance of teamwork and shared the following anecdote to make his point:

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage, I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got just some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘come back tomorrow.’

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other, creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.
It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

“Having fights” is inevitable when people with different perspectives, experiences, talents, and opinions work together. We often feel that conflict is something to avoid but, when it comes to team effectiveness, the combined effort of teams whose members challenge one another’s thinking far exceeds what a group of like-minded individuals can accomplish.

But how do we keep productive conflict from degenerating into interpersonal conflict?

Here are five tips for managing conflict and setting the stage so your team can have a “good fight”.

  1. DATA:
    Use data to keep the discussion grounded in reality and focused on the issue instead of personalities or opinions. If team members have to speculate on what the facts might be, their discussion is just a waste of time and energy. Having the facts leads to a healthy debate and good decisions.
  2. OPTIONS:
    Generate multiple options for the team to consider. Discussing only two options forces the group to choose sides, but having multiple alternatives inspires creative thinking and results in better solutions.
  3. SHARED VISION:
    As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else”. If the team is not united by a common goal, members will start blaming each other when they end up “someplace else”. Team members don’t have to think alike, but they do have to share a collective vision.
  4. HAVE FUN:
    Humor lessens tension and creates a psychologically safe space. Research shows that people in a good mood are more creative; they’re also better listeners, which helps them understand other’s perspectives.
  5. BE INCLUSIVE:
    Encourage everyone to speak up and ensure that everyone participates equally in the discussion. If people understand how a decision was made and feel the process was fair, they’re more likely to accept the decision even if they don’t agree with it.

A lack of conflict means apathy, not harmony. Effective decisions are most likely to be made by teams that engage in healthy debate.
But remember…preventing interpersonal conflict is key.


Watch the Steve Jobs interview below:

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