Why It’s a Good Idea to Fight With Your Co-workers Sometimes

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It’s a fine line to walk: You want to be nice and helpful enough to make some work friends, but you don’t want your colleagues to think of you as a pushover; you want to be protective of your own time and energy, but not so much that you’re known as the office jerk. There’s a lot of effort, in other words, that goes into getting what you want out of the workday while simultaneously avoiding any conflict.

But maybe that’s not the best goal, for you or for the people you work with. In a recent column in Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, argued that conflict isn’t always the mark of a toxic workplace; on the contrary, it can be a way of pushing everyone toward better ideas and better execution. “Productive conflict creates value,” she wrote. “If you avoid disagreeing, you leave faulty assumptions unexposed.”

Davey also offers up three strategies for stoking disagreement in a way that moves things forward. The first is to clearly explain from the get-go what type of role each person will be expected to play, a conversation that also highlights where people may have competing or incompatible interests:

If you are in a cross-functional meeting with sales and production, the production person might be advocating for more standardization, control, and efficiency. The sales person advocates for the exact opposite: more flexibility, customization, and agility. When they are doing their jobs well, the sales and production leads should conflict with one another on the path to an optimized solution. One is fighting to be as responsive as possible to unique customer needs; the other fights for the consistency that breeds quality control and cost effectiveness.

In cases like this, she explains, conflict isn’t just inevitable — it’s desirable, a sign that everyone is advocating for their own department or function. The second, similarly, is to take note of the different personalities in the room: In addition to the unique role-based perspectives people bring, everyone will also have a unique point of view based on their personal traits. “Pay particular attention if you have one or two styles that are in the minority,” Davey writes. “Team members with minority perspectives should be given the responsibility to speak up if the team’s thinking becomes lopsided.” If things are moving along too smoothly, in other words, it’s likely because some perspectives aren’t being taken into account.

And the third is to be hyperspecific ahead of time about what is and isn’t a productive way of expressing disagreement. It’s not just to discourage people from going off the rails — explicitly naming the good behaviors, the thinking goes, will also help people feel comfortable enough to adopt them, rather than sitting quietly when they disagree. And if the whole thing still sounds daunting, consider this: Speaking up will only help you get out of the meeting faster — and, ideally, into something more fun.

Why It’s a Good Idea to Fight With Your Co-workers Sometimes