Why you should argue with your employees and embrace internal team conflict

Yes, it can feel draining and counterproductive, but here’s why arguing and dealing with team conflict can be good things…

“Did I hire the wrong person?”

I remember thinking that right after I’d gotten into a heated argument with our programmer, Matt, for the very first time.

This was back in 2014. We’d recently hired Matt at Know Your Company (now today Know Your Team.) A few weeks into his time with us, I disagreed with how he was handling our support requests. Matt had replied quickly to a few CEOs… but in my opinion, it was too quick. I didn’t think he’d answered their concerns thoroughly enough. We ended up arguing about what was more important in customer service: speed or quality.

Man, it was frustrating. To feel like your teammate is not on the same page as you. To feel the tug, the push, the pull, the back-and-forth of opinions. We got into it. No yelling or name-calling or anything… but it was an intense exchange.

At the time, I thought: “Uh oh.” If we’re arguing this early on in our time together, maybe this wasn’t going to work out. Were we irreparably incompatible? Perhaps I shouldn’t have even hired him, in the first place?

Then I reminded myself: Arguing is a good thing.

Why? Arguing is a sign that you care. You care enough to have strong opinions about how to make the company better. You’re willing to bring those opinions forward, and battle it out for the best one.

Arguing is how you vet ideas and ensure you’re not submitting to groupthink. Arguing is how you make the best decisions.

In his well-known book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins echoes this sentiment:

“All the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate,’ ‘heated discussions,’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies.”

The key is to argue well. To put forth your point not because you want your point to win, but because you want the best point to win. It’s not about ego — it’s about the outcome. You want the outcome that’s best for the company, plain and simple. It can’t be about anything else.

Whew, is this hard to do, let alone remember. When I’m arguing with someone, it can feel negative and draining. My energy feels like it’s just wasting away…

But then I remind myself that what’s worse is the opposite: I don’t want Matt agreeing with me all the time. I don’t want Matt to stifle his thoughts or bite his tongue in exasperation. It’d mean he’d feel like it wasn’t worth the effort to share his opinions. It’d indicate he’d given up and checked out.

Constant agreement is a sign of apathy. When your team is agreeing with you all the time, it means someone doesn’t care enough to bring her or his opinion forward. Someone doesn’t care enough to challenge existing assumptions with a contrarian viewpoint, or to let you know that something is bugging them. She or he will just keep it inside…and it’ll fester, bubble up, and later explode.

That’s when you have a real problem on your hands.

Constant agreement is also an indicator of something deeper at play: fear and futility. If you find yourself in an echo chamber, it’s often because your employees have grown to…

  1. Fear the repercussions of arguing with you. For instance, they’re worried about being viewed as “difficult to work with,” or even are scared about losing their job.
  2. Feel it’s futile to speak up in the first place. If they were to argue with you, they believe you’d simply brush their reasonings aside. So why’d it be worth arguing, at all?

Fear and futility are in fact the top two reasons why employees don’t speak up at work. And so the lack of arguments could be pointing to broader malfunctions in your company where honest conversations are not happening as often as they should.

Pay attention to this. The absence of arguments should warn you that something more is brewing below the surface. Whether it’s apathy, fear, or futility, you should be concerned if your employees are not arguing with you… rather than the other way around.

I’d much rather have an employee who argues with me, than an employee who nods their head, blindly agreeing with me. I’m lucky that Matt is the former.

After all, you’ll never avoid arguing. Arguing is a natural by-product of humans being humans. No two humans are 100% alike, so no two humans will ever 100% agree with one another. Put two people in a room and they will always end up arguing at some point.

Don’t let an argument demoralize you. And don’t succumb to the temptation to avoid it for the sake of saving perceived time and energy in the short term.

The conflict that comes with arguing is worth it. If you want the best ideas to surface and the best decisions to unfold, you have to be willing to face that friction. Embrace the arguing, and focus on doing it well.


Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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