"Where all think alike, no one thinks very much." — Walter Lippmann
Collaboration and conflict are not opponents: they're partners. So let's banish the notion that high-performing teams are made up of smiling people who always get along.
Teamwork should be messy, and being a good manager isn't about creating a fake-happy work environment where you're more concerned about keeping the peace than doing good work.
Think of the rivalry between sales and marketing, or the competition between your top-performing sales reps. That healthy tension fuels success.
But how do you keep conflict productive? You need to be able to recognize when healthy tension is in danger of turning disruptive, and step in to prevent things from devolving into toxic workplace territory.
When a member of your team is at odds with a colleague in another team or department, what can you do to help them get through it? And how do you create a work environment where conflict drives progress and achievement?
Turn to the timeless wisdom of one of history’s greatest leaders, Marcus Aurelius.
Who is Marcus Aurelius?
Perhaps one of history’s greatest rulers, Marcus Aurelius is widely regarded as the embodiment of the ideal leader. Aurelius, who you may know as the wise old Roman Emperor from the movie Gladiator, ruled from 161 to 180 AD.
No stranger to conflict, Aurelius spent the final years of his rule fighting the growing threat of Germanic tribes. He also grappled with his personal conviction that his only son, Commodus, was an unfit successor.
It’s during this time that he wrote Meditations. Now considered one of the greatest works of philosophy ever written, it's a collection of Aurelius' personal thoughts and ruminations on Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism focuses on accepting what’s not within your control and mastering your emotions. Stoics respond to conflict with reason and logic rather than emotional outbursts. Winning an argument is pointless — virtue and character are all that matter.
But Stoics aren't pushovers. The approach isn't about letting people say whatever they want to or about you, because in the end it doesn't really matter. It's about recognizing what's truly important and what isn't so that you don't let temporary problems distract you from doing your best work and being your best self.
Egos, politics, office decorum, "how we do things around here" — that is what Stoics seek to ignore.
A Stoic's Approach to Conflict Resolution
How do you apply 2,000-year-old advice to the modern workplace?
Dealing with conflict is a task many managers struggle with, or even avoid at all costs. In fact, 85% of executives have concerns with their company that they are afraid to raise because of the conflict that would ensue.
But conflict is an unavoidable part of the workplace. Aurelius' Meditations offers sage wisdom for today's managers looking for strategies to use that conflict to drive success.
Conflict is Inevitable
Conflict doesn’t always happen because people are being difficult… but sometimes it does. Egos, bad attitudes, and office politics are a fact of corporate life. Like it or not, there are people who will make your life difficult simply because they’re only concerned with making theirs easier.
Start your day with the expectation that you’ll encounter some pushback, and it won’t rile you as much when it does happen. Anticipate that others will question your decisions, waste your time, and take advantage of your willingness to help.
By expecting this behavior, you can mentally prepare, learn how to avoid getting sucked into time-wasting tasks and discussions, and be able to justify your decisions when questioned. And if things go better than expected, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
This Too Shall Pass
One of the foundational tenets of Aurelius' philosophies is that, in the grand scheme of things, nothing lasts. To quote a very different kind of philosopher, "Life moves pretty fast."
This isn’t meant to be depressing — in fact, it’s meant to be liberating. Why waste precious time and energy getting upset over things that don’t truly matter?
The CMO criticizing your campaign idea is not important on a cosmic scale, although it can feel absolutely vital in the moment. A dose of perspective can keep you from getting worked up over issues that will only distract you from things that actually matter.
Agonizing Over Conflict Only Makes It Worse
Anger only makes a bad situation worse. Getting ticked off that someone talked down to you during a meeting doesn't help—it just agitates you more.
Not only that, it prolongs the situation. What should have been a minor blip on your radar suddenly becomes a fixation, as you relive the moment over and over. The next thing you know, you've made zero progress on your work because you're too busy stewing... or worse, complaining.
Anger only hurts one person: you.
Whose Opinion Really Matters?
Who cares if Janice from design thinks your Powerpoint deck looks like it's from 1986? So what if Paul from performance marketing says your ideas suck? Why does it matter if Laura from content marketing keeps erasing your copy edits?
At the end of the day, you answer to only a handful of people. Why does it matter what anyone else thinks? Instead of letting it rile you, draw confidence from the fact that the people whose opinions truly matter — yours and your manager's — are confident in your performance.
Criticism Does Not Equal Conflict
Don't create a conflict out of a critique. Nobody is perfect, and nobody does perfect work. Honest self-reflection is a vital part of improving, and you should welcome all kinds of feedback from all kinds of people.
If someone points out a flaw in your work or thinking, don't automatically see it as an attack. There's no need to dwell over your shortcomings or feel insecure about them; take the opportunity to recognize and do something about them. Make criticism constructive.
Conflicts Arise When People Care
Which would you rather have: a group of apathetic "yes" men? Or a team of people who passionately argue for what they truly believe is the best course of action?
Being a good team player means challenging others to uncover flawed thinking and processes. But not everyone is going to agree on what those flaws are.
Finance is going to support the most economical solution, while marketing will argue for the most responsive. These are both valid considerations: cost effectiveness is just as important as optimization.
Other people aren't disagreeing with you because they don’t like you, or because they’re an argumentative person, or because they’re flat out wrong. They’re simply doing their jobs.
The best thing you can do for your team is address these underlying tensions head on. Normalize them. Bring them to the surface so that they can expect conflicting viewpoints and understand where they’re coming from.
Next time you're headed into a meeting, tell your team: "Expect Lucas to argue for the fastest solution, in spite of the expense, because meeting the deadline is one of his top priorities." Remind your team that you're all fighting for the best solution. Make team building exercises a regular part of your team's work week, and research virtual team building ideas to include everyone.
Conflict Can Drive Innovation
If you're in conflict with someone and it truly is becoming a roadblock or preventing you from accomplishing what you want to achieve — then find another way. Use it as an opportunity for creative problem solving. Adapt.
Helping your team deal with office conflict all starts with your leadership. Your team needs to know that you're there to listen when they encounter conflict and help them out. It's not something they should keep to themselves or stew over in silence.
To start, don't shield your team from conflicts or disagreements. Be transparent about discussions and debates happening at the executive level, especially about decisions that concern them. You don't need to air any dirty laundry, simply explain how different perspectives factored into a new decision.
In your daily teamwork, encourage dissenting opinions and those who question assumptions. Show your team that disagreeing doesn't mean they'll be seen as poor team players or difficult employees.
Instead of yelling and finger-pointing, foster the kind of conflict that improves thinking and results.