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Nice Isn't The Goal: Why You Should Create More Conflict At Work

Plus 3 Simple Tactics to Cultivate Constructive Disagreement

Read Time: 3 minutes 

I wrote a post on LinkedIn that got a lot of buzz.

I said most teams would benefit from more conflict. Not less.

As you read through the 100+ comments, you'll notice that not a single person disagreed with this notion. Not one.

And yet...

  • We shy away from candid feedback

  • We hire people who tend to agree with us

  • We rarely diagnose a problem to the root cause

Because conflict makes us uncomfortable.

Forced to choose between harm and harmony, most of us will seek peace.

But what if that's a false choice?

What if the conversations we're avoiding are the ones we need to have?

What if we could separate brutal, winner-takes-all conflict from collaborative, positive-sum innovation born from diversity and dissent?

Yeah, I'd want to work there, too.

Let's try.

Separating Good from Bad

Part of the problem is that not all conflict is created equal.

Take one extreme. A "conflict entrepreneur" stokes unnecessary conflict exclusively to build their own power.

You don't want these characters in your cast.

But in our effort to avoid these characters, we often send signals that all conflict is destructive. And without clearly articulating your culture's operating principles - the ones that appropriately guide thoughtful disagreements - most people will steer clear.

Remember: most of them don't like conflict in the first place.

Here's my simple rubric

  • Intention: Building up or tearing down?

  • Communication: Curious or furious?

  • Execution: Heated or repeated?

Stay on the left side of those choices and keep it cool ;)

Now, let's shake the snow globe and get more of the good stuff.

3 Tactics to Cultivate Constructive Conflict

The Alignment Pyramid

At Bridgewater, I regularly mediated disputes.

I quickly learned that if you open the floor to two entrenched people, they'll immediately retake their battle positions.

Instead, I'd lead the conversation, starting at the top of the pyramid and methodically working my way down:

  • Mission - Do we agree that our mission is important?

  • Goals - Are we still aligned that X is the right goal?

  • Path - Does our chosen path still make sense?

  • Obstacle - Do we see the same obstacle holding us back?

  • Evidence - What evidence makes this a critical obstacle?

  • Priority - Are we paying the proper attention to it?

  • Options - What are the options we rejected for solving this?

  • Solution - Will the solution address the issue?

This approach allows three things to happen:

  1. You reestablish just how much agreement exists between the two parties. Disagreement becomes a detail.

  2. You uncover the underlying source of the disagreement. People tend to get stuck without realizing the real issue is higher up.

  3. You give them a reusable framework to reconcile disagreements in the future quickly. This is leveraged leading.

By guiding this conversation, you often allow the two parties to unlock the issue themselves. And if not, you have the context you need to decide and help them move forward.

Red Team

Assigning a "red team" is a common tactic used by military and security companies. They ask a group to be the opposition and encourage them to try to win. This exercise allows them to anticipate better what the "enemy" will do and work to thwart it proactively.

But let's be honest - very few people will play this role on their own. So, the unlock for your team is assigning the red team.

This way, no one is confused by the motivation behind their dissent. They're poking holes by design.

Plus, everyone understands the "mode" the team is operating in, one where conflict is not only tolerated but encouraged. You can host a debrief at the end to decide what you've learned and consolidate the collective path forward.

Feedback Rituals

I've written in-depth about the value of feedback and why elevating key practices to the level of "ritual" is common among high-performance cultures.

But you can put them together to create a backstop to ensure everyone gets the signal they need to improve.

Being intentional is doubly important for hybrid and remote teams that don't have the organic collisions in the office to resolve disagreements.

The key ingredients:

  • Clear dance steps. Rituals have tradition. Everyone knows what to expect and what's expected of them. Map them out.

  • Put on your best face. Tone. Expression. Emotion. All of these help us connect and see each other's intentions—cameras on.

  • Gratitude for the privilege. Feedback is a gift, even when it doesn't feel like it. Gratitude should be part of the process.

  • Default mode: Curious. We want conflict to surface the best ideas and rally the team around it. It's an exploration, not a coronation.

Be Explicit

My last piece of advice: call you shot. Make it clear to your team what you’re up to and why you think it’s important.

You’re attempting to shift the culture of the team. And those behaviors are a tacit agreement you’re attempting to rewrite.

People are usually open to rewriting the contract. They just need to know you’re doing it so they can sign on.

Give one a shot, and let me know how it goes.

Q4 Leadership Survival Guide

In addition to making your numbers and surviving Black Friday, most companies layer on performance reviews and strategic planning. It is the most wonderful time of the year.

Here are a few editions of the MGMT Playbook that might help

Need help with something else? Hit reply and let me know what playbooks will set you up for success next year.


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