If You Want to Win, You Have to Learn How to Fight

Business leadership is a full-contact sport. The best performing teams conflict often, openly, and constructively.

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By Steve Tobak


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There have been plenty of cringe-worthy moments in the 2016 presidential race. I'm not just talking about goofs, but intense debate and attack ads where candidates go after each other with such vitriol, it makes you wonder if we really are as civilized as we think we are.

Then again, nothing I've seen in political discourse comes close to how overheated emotions can get when executives and directors clash in the boardroom. I've been guilty of that myself, more times than I care to admit.

But you know what? None of that concerns me. On the contrary, and this just might blow your mind, when you don't see that sort of open hostility over controversial and critical issues, that's when you need to be concerned.

If your definition of civilized leadership is that everyone gets along famously and walks arm-in-arm into the sunset singing Kumbaya, you need to wake up and smell the utopia. That's not how it is in the real world. And it's not how it should be, either.

There's actually something far worse than open conflict between opposing viewpoints, and that's passive-aggressive behavior and the like. In case you're new to the concept, that's when people appear agreeable and supportive, but act to oppose and undermine behind the scenes.

When I think back to all the petty politics of my early career, I have to laugh. That was nothing compared with life as an executive. Let me tell you, corporate leadership is a full-contact sport. But the worst actors, hands down, are not the ones who let you have it between the eyes but rather those who wreak havoc behind your back.

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I'm not just talking about backstabbing to make you look bad or end-arounds to undermine your authority. I'm talking about serious clandestine strategies that can take down a CEO, a product line, or even an entire company. I've seen it happen many times.

I've worked with companies that had warring factions with diametrically opposing views on how the company should be run or who should run it. The problem is, you'd never know it from outward appearances. On the surface, everything seemed hunky-dory, but behind the scenes, it was like the CIA and KGB in the cold war. And it never ended well.

If that describes your company or even if it doesn't, this is important so listen up. That sort of passive-aggressive behavior is extremely dysfunctional. It's toxic to an organization. It wreaks havoc on the decision-making process. And it destroys team effectiveness.

The best performing teams conflict often, openly, and constructively.

The way to avoid that is to understand that open conflict is a critical aspect of an effective decision-making process, which in turn drives optimum outcomes and performance. In other words, the best performing teams conflict often, openly, and constructively.

Now let's talk about those three words, "often," "openly" and "constructively."

When I say "often," that doesn't mean all the time, anytime. Once a decision is made, that becomes the plan and everyone should get behind it until an outcome, unless something important changes, like the competitive landscape. I'm talking about appropriate meetings where issues are debated and decisions made.

Likewise, "openly" doesn't mean knock-down drag-outs in the hallway or in front of customers and investors. In general, a management team should show its stakeholders a reasonably united front. But during decision-making meetings, everyone should air their views openly and without holding back.

Related: 10 Behaviors of Genuinely Successful People

And "constructively" means attacking the problem, not the person. It means providing concrete reasons why you think an idea is flawed and offering an alternative view, not shooting it down with hyperbole or shouting someone down with insults and aggression.

There's just one caveat. There's a lot of confusion in leadership circles about whether emotion and anger are OK in the workplace. It's a tricky question, so let me clarify how it should work, at least in theory.

Founders and executives put a lot of themselves into their companies. That means they don't just have a vested interest in the outcome, but also an emotional connection to the company, its products, and its business. It's only natural. And as long as their emotions are genuine, that's cool.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't deal with their emotions in a healthy way. Some don't deal with them at all. Instead, they drag their own childhood dramas and emotional issues into the workplace and act out in anger on unsuspecting coworkers. Their emotions may seem genuine, but they're really displaced. That's not cool.

Like I said, that's the theory. In reality, everyone reacts differently to emotional stimuli. Unless someone's behavior is chronically messing up the performance and cohesion of the team, it's best to err on the side of acceptance and learn to deal with it. When it becomes toxic, you'll usually know it.

Just remember, the best performing teams conflict often, openly, and constructively.

Related: Want to Be Successful? Have Fun. Seriously.

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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