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Detoxify Conflict

Men Arguing

As owners of BS+Co. and Decisive Capital, Britt and I embrace conflict. We often produce the most meaningful results when approaching a topic with our heels dug into opposing views.  Sometimes our (Britt’s) voices reach a higher decibel, or I resort to my patented chin-down look of condescension (not to be confused with my chin-down look of rumination or solemn empathy).  We aren’t always perfect at it, but it works.  Over the pendency of our partnership, we’ve grown positively enthusiastic when realizing we have opposing positions.  Conflict is mandatory as we build teams driven by their seeking system, with autonomy, and without pecuniary task management.

When I looked for some industry articles supporting the idea that conflict is mandatory, I found only articles explaining how it could be good. Avoiding conflict breeds toxicity, not the other way around. When conflict is avoided, creative voices are stifled, resentment builds, and dysfunction goes unchecked.  

On the other hand, by creating an environment celebrating conflict, we can enjoy the bounty explained in the articles that gave the conflict a thumbs up:

A glimpse into our internal structure document

Conflict and Rules of Engagement

Conflict is a natural outcome of BS+Co.’s managerless system. In our contrarian nature, conflict is an essential ingredient for growth. Saying we seek it out may be slightly too strong a statement, but when acting by our ethos, we see it as an opportunity for growth (and growth can be difficult or even painful). If we start with the assumption that, in most cases, our team members are acting out of a self-interest grounded in our ethos, then conflict is rich with information that bears knowing. The downside of conflict is that team members might tear one another down or lose focus on our primary goals (to move our companies [clients] toward their business objectives).

The Riches of Conflict

Ribbons of ignorance flow through even the most thoroughly considered design when overly prescriptive systems are created. This is especially pronounced when the systems are intended to promote innovative or creative knowledge work. 

Designers, developers, marketing strategists, and social media creators understand their work encumbrances and flows in ways managers cannot fully comprehend. That’s why we hire competent adults with existing skill sets, right?  

Structure and systems are created where team members experience friction. When recurring tension results in conflict, several stakeholders usually have unique insights or conflicting demands. 

New concerns and insights result from conflict between various stakeholders. Conflict is often the best way to identify commonality when entrenched in their viewpoints.

For example, what was once an irritating experience becomes an appraisal of all that is wrong when a strategist asks for a 4-hour design project to be completed five days after it was assigned. On Day 3, this was an irritation, but due to encouraged conflict, on Day 5, there was a WTF moment from the strategist and an “I’m doing all that I can; give me a break” from the designer. 

When digging into an issue after conflict arises, we can build processes about prioritizing work, assigning work, or internal communication. Essentially, conflict provides an opportunity to understand what factors lead to friction and what, if anything, can be adjusted in the future to avoid it. 

For those of us building this ship, it is crucial to observe how the conflict plays out, then coach the stakeholders to build a structure around the tension that gave rise to conflict; aside from being disruptive to the culture, reactive problem-solving results in shallow solutions. Watching things play out provides insight that can give us an edge as we provide our unique service brand. 

Rules of Engagement

We are dogged about making sure that we have committed people on our team, so, as mentioned above, we start with the belief that the team member is trying to act from our ethos and shared goals.

  • Assume statements from your teammates are not made from a place of anger, superiority, or lack of sympathy;
  • Don’t make statements to your teammates that come from a place of anger, superiority, or lack of sympathy;
  • Keep “what we are trying to accomplish at the forefront of conversation;”
  • Empathy;
  • Swearing is OK, but name-calling is off-limits, and 
  • Overall, try to stay clear of personal claims and attacks

Leaning into conflict results from our no-bullshit approach. The fact is that conflict exists within and between us; it normally just goes unaddressed. Or worse, addressed with people who can’t help resolve it.

Our respect for conflict is only one arrow in our approach and structure quiver, but it has proven to be valuable over and over again.