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Why Can't We All Just Get Along? Because We Shouldn't. Conflict is key to smart decisions and positive outcomes ... and we're all the better for it.

By Steve Tobak Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Why can't we all just get along?

Who hasn't asked that rhetorical question at one time or another? We sometimes utter this common refrain when observing what we think are futile conflicts between others. Other times we're referring to our own usually frustrating issues with a coworker or associate.

The short answer, albeit a snarky one, is, "Because we can't. Conflict is part of human nature. It's as true at home as it is at work. The modern workplace is a veritable petrie dish of conflicting viewpoints and dysfunctional behavior. It's a wonder anything gets done at all," or something to that effect.

While that is true, it's neither a satisfying nor a productive response. Considering how important relationships are to our personal and business lives – not to mention that the line between the two has become so blurred to be almost nonexistent – we can all agree that getting along is both a noble and practical goal.

On the other hand – and this may strike you as counterintuitive – there are times when it's important that we don't get along. There are times when we need to confront our differing viewpoints and learn to conflict in productive ways. The great irony is that the process of learning how not to get along is critical to building successful relationships and effective teams.

Let's start with the simple premise that, if you choose any two people at random, they will likely disagree on any number of topics. Now extend that to management teams with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 individuals and you can see why disagreement on key issues is so common. And yet, important decisions have to be made.

If you're with me so far and have been around the business world as long as I have, you know there are only two options. One method is to strive for a relatively quick decision that involves as little conflict as possible. After a brief discussion, either majority rules or the boss simply makes the call. That, as it turns out, is not the way to go. You'll understand why in a minute.

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Instead of expediency and minimal discord, the second method – a far better method essentially devised by former Intel CEO Andy Grove – expressly ensures that no viewpoints are suppressed and the team has ample opportunity to vigorously debate the issues. There are four important steps to ensuring the resultant decision and outcome have the highest probability of success.

Keep it on the fairway.

Stick to the issue and don't let things get out of hand or go out of bounds. Heated arguments are typical but the way to keep them productive is to coach people to attack the problem, not the person. It's OK to say, "I think your idea is doomed and here's why," but not "I think you're a clueless idiot." It should never get personal. Also banish any extraneous topics to the parking lot and keep things moving along.

Ensure complete transparency and brutal honesty.

This is key. Everything has to be on the table with no preconceived notions, sacred cows, or personal agendas. Anyone can and must call BS if they hear it, even if it's coming from the mouth of the CEO. If you can't challenge the status quo, the process will fail. The only reason everyone is there is to arrive at the best decision for the company. Period.

Come to a clear decision.

The team does eventually have to come to a decision but that doesn't mean everyone has to agree. You're not a jury in a criminal trial. What matters is that you hash it out until everything's out on the table and there's critical mass behind a clear decision. If you continue beyond that point, no good will come of it and it may result in a sort of hung-jury scenario.

Fully support the decision.

One of the basic concepts behind the process is peer pressure – not to go along with the boss or majority, which is definitely counterproductive, but to go along with the process. Those who disagree must put their differences aside, commit to the decision that's reached, and do everything in their power to help make it successful on behalf of the company.

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Think of this process as a rule of law. It isn't perfect, but you have to have faith that it's the best system and stand behind it, at least until the decision runs its course and turns out to be right or wrong. If it's the latter, you repeat the process.

Once you spend a few years making decisions this way, you come to realize why it's inherently superior to the first method or any other permutation for that matter. The reason is simple. When you bring a bunch of smart individuals with diverse backgrounds together with a lot riding on their decisions, they will inevitably disagree on important matters. And that's as it should be.

That said, without a framework that enables teams to openly debate and reach some sort of critical mass, you run the risk of 1) failing to give some ideas or arguments ample chance to be explored, 2) bad decisions being made for the wrong reasons, or 3) some individuals feeling their viewpoints were suppressed along the way. Those issues lead to poor decision-making, dissention after the fact, and inferior outcomes.

Why can't we all just get along? Because conflict is critical to smart decisions and positive outcomes. And we're all the better for it.

Related: Be a Real Entrepreneur, Not a Digital Clone

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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