In a previous lifetime I was a Team Building Instructor, and had the pleasure of working with some of the great corporate behemoths of our time: ING Group, PriceWaterhouse and GlaxoSmithKline, to name but a few. Once deployed on a mission, we would organise theatrical “corporate kidnappings”, where the Grande Fromage would be held – in the comfort of their own office, having pre-recorded their plea for rescue some weeks earlier. The teams would then have a variety of tasks to complete, to earn enough (and then lug around) lead painted gold, to pay the faux ransom. Between you, me and the gatepost, more often than not the teams would shrug their shoulders and tell us (the captors) to “…#@!$%?’#! keep ’em”; but I digress.
What I repeatedly found fascinating during these excursions, was the blend of the teams we put together (from directors to office juniors and cleaning staff) and the evolving interaction between them. We also threw another grenade over the wall by putting the least senior team members (i.e.: the cleaner) in charge of the team and their director/CEO-level superiors. The reason for this was simple; everyone has a contribution to make, and everyone had something to learn from the experience. The juniors would experience i.e.: pressure, responsibility and leadership, the seniors would experience patience, humility and obedience, whilst they all worked cohesively as a team for the common goal.
One of my favourite experiences came when a team of inordinately qualified engineers and their secretaries, had to cross an imaginary chasm, whilst transporting a 30 litre drum of supposedly toxic and explosive Kraptonite 69. We gave them sufficient materials, which would adequately transport them all and their cargo, but only if applied in the correct manner and sequence. The engineers – all of them men on this occasion – all but stopped themselves from telling the (female) secretaries to stand back whilst they solved the conundrum; despite our role reversal rules. The engineers quickly became absorbed in a myriad of calculation, whilst the secretaries stood quietly for a few moments, conferred and then offered a solution. The engineers scoffed and insisted the answer would be more complex, but eventually ran out of time without crossing the chasm; they failed the task. The pragmatic secretaries however had indeed solved the problem, much to the engineer’s chagrin. I’m happy to report that cohesion was eventually learnt and applied successfully, as the day progressed.
It is easy to become enveloped in your speciality, in your own unique thinking processes and methods of dealing with challenges, so I must ask you this: do you have a thinking partner? Do you have someone to play devil’s advocate, someone who will challenge your thinking – someone who is more than just an echo chamber for you? If you don’t have someone to disconfirm your thinking, how can you prove your thinking is correct? Servile sycophancy does does not promote growth, but constructive conflict will.
For constructive conflict to be successful, you will need to find people who are different to you. We know that we are naturally drawn to others like ourselves, but this only reaffirms our comfort zones and what we already (think we) know. To actively seek out people with differing perspectives, experiences and agendas will require a lot of patience and hard work on your part, but you will commit to this if you care sufficiently about the outcome.
You must also be prepared to change your mind, which can often be more problematic for some than others. If you’ve gone to the trouble of activating a devil’s advocate, then you must be prepared for the possibility of having to think again from a new perspective. The nature of constructive conflict requires you to think, think and think again.
If you’re afraid of the constructive conflict concept, then just re-frame it; view it instead as thinking. Honestly, there’s no need to be afraid of constructive conflict; we should be more afraid of deafening silence, where nothing is happening or growing. By creating constructive conflict – good natured, friendly rivalry – we grow, we can be further educated, we are introduced to new ideas we might not have thought of, or new ways to consider established truths. After all, aren’t fear and arrogance the two most potent ingredients of dogmatism?
By collaborating with others, by daring to disagree, we can refine our skills and our thinking, and enhance our future opportunities. So who is your thinking partner? Do you engage in constructive conflict together, or are they more of an echo chamber? Do they enhance your skills, push back on your suppositions and challenge you to do – and be – better?
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely space to inhabit, as our friends and family often have little or no understanding of what drives us, or why. The passion and intensity with which we go about realising our dreams can confound those who do not share our vision. Finding a suitable thinking partner in these circumstances can prove difficult, but this is where having a mentor proves as invaluable as it is self-funding. Can you really afford not to have a mentor on your team?
Here is a constructive conflict exercise you might like to try with your thinking partner, to gauge their value to you in this role: what five statements would you make, that you are prepared to defend vigorously? Once you have completed the exercise, ask: how hard did your thinking partner push back and challenge your statements? Did they persuade you to think differently, or to tweak your opinion in any way? Were you able to defend you statements as well as you originally thought you would, or did you find flaws in your own thinking? Did you dare to disagree? Was it a valuable exercise?
If you would like a new, or another, thinking partner (because you can always have more than one), then please contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help. Until then, be great!