The Art of Debate: How Healthy Conflict Drives Success at Work

· 3 min read
The Art of Debate: How Healthy Conflict Drives Success at Work

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a heated debate at work, heart pounding, only to wonder if this could be the secret ingredient to success? If this question intrigues you, you’re not alone. Let me take you one of our meetings, where lively debates are not the exception but the norm.

The Value of Conflict

In our company, we argue quite a lot. For someone who walks into our meeting room during one of these intense debates, it might feel like we despise each other. Picture this: Colleagues passionately defending their ideas, voices raised, a real-life spectacle of what seems like chaos. Yet, somehow, we’ve been working together for almost 8 years (yes, most of the team remains the same for that long, and there’s a lot of value in it). These kinds of conflicts and debates are quite exhausting, true, but I believe there’s a lot of value in a healthy debate when it’s not getting personal. When people care about the decisions and have different viewpoints, conflict is inevitable.

Real-Life Scenario: The Chatbot Dilemma

Imagine a typical situation; let’s humanize it with some dialogue:

  • Project Manager: “We need to implement a chatbot feature in the next two months. It’s critical for the users and will tremendously benefit them.”
  • Tech Lead 1: “We should rewrite the whole system, adding a new real-time data layer and creating a unified message queue.”
  • Tech Lead 2: “We have a lot of work in the pipeline. We need to implement just a simple pub/sub communication to meet the deadline.”

Here, the tech leads are discussing a rather simple chatbot where users can send messages and receive responses. One solution is grand in architecture but requires a lot of effort to build. The other is much quicker but has shortcomings. The conflict is inevitable, but it occurred for one single reason: Both of the tech leads deeply care about the product. They just look at the problem from different angles.

A Parable’s Wisdom

There’s a well-known parable about six blind men that are trying to describe an elephant. Each touches a different part, leading to various descriptions. One says the elephant is like a thick tree, another like a spear, and so on.

In the parable, the wise men start to argue, but the king brought them all to peace, noting that they were each right, but none have seen the whole picture.

Just like the blind men, sometimes people debating with each other can’t see that they’re simply talking about different sides of the problem. An important outcome of the conflict should be a more complete picture of the whole.

When Conflict Goes Wrong

It’s worth noting that not all conflicts are productive. Sometimes people are nervous, burned out, or stressed, leading to conflicts based on emotions rather than facts. These conflicts are rarely productive.

One of our team members once shared a painful experience: “I felt attacked, not because my idea was flawed, but because my colleague let emotions guide the debate. It quickly escalated, and I felt defeated.”

The distinction between constructive and destructive conflict is crucial.

The Role of the Manager

I think a big part of a job of an engineering manager is to encourage and moderate conflicts. It’s essential to be mentally strong enough to separate the conflict about a topic from the people who participate. A conflict will be forgotten tomorrow; people will stay on the team for years.

A seasoned manager in our company once said, “Moderating conflicts is not about suppressing voices; it’s about ensuring that every voice is heard and respected.”

In the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” book, Patrick Lencioni names fear of conflict as one of the key dysfunctions. He warns that fear of conflict creates a fake peace and harmony, leading to stagnation.

We can all learn from embracing healthy conflicts and recognizing the value they bring to our work environment. What are your thoughts? Have you experienced the benefits or pitfalls of conflicts in your workplace? Share your experiences below!

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