What Bruce Lee Can Teach Leaders About the Benefits of Conflict and Challenging Ideas
Only organizations and leaders who cultivate an environment where ideas can flow freely and be challenged without judgment can make it. Here's how to make sure your company encourages the right kind of conflict.
Can company leaders claim employees are their greatest asset without providing ongoing forums for open idea exchange?
Bruce Lee, a brilliant philosopher and martial artist, warned us that untested ideas guarantee unrealized potential. He created Jeet Kune Do — not as a new style, but as a general epistemology (theory of knowledge) to be open-minded to all styles to find what works — and along the way, "absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own." Lee's genius extends way beyond martial arts as truly strengthening an organization (and one's character, for that matter) requires ongoing ideation and adaptation.
In weak corporate ecosystems, forums for exchanging ideas are nonexistent and/or there are negative consequences for voicing an opinion against the prevailing orthodoxy. In the extreme, it may cost your employment. To a lesser extent, perhaps you're viewed as "combative" (even if you respectfully voice your ideas) and watch the "yes" people get promoted.
In either scenario, an ecosystem is created where strong employees who value idea exchange will eventually look elsewhere, further weakening the ecosystem left behind. For boats to rise, the tide must rise. In corporate ecosystems, organizations and leaders that cultivate "just right conflict" through the octagon of ideas will actualize the ecosystem's highest evolutionary fitness — the cultural tide that will push the boats to rise.
Evolution through the octagon of ideas
I vividly remember the weakest corporate ecosystem that I ever worked in. There was little to no employee input and the "we've always done it this way" orthodoxy was alive and well. Motivated and outside-the-box employees tended to move on, while the loyalists stuck around content with the status quo.
Employees want to be authentically engaged and have their opinions matter. Strong leaders realize that engaging their employees' input before decisions are made is crucial not only for employee satisfaction but for truly finding the best solution. It is only through the crucible of natural selection that the best idea — perhaps a composite of the best parts of many ideas — will be granted evolutionary fitness.
We see this practice in thriving organizations, biological ecosystems, our own personal lives and also in the example of martial arts. The octagon serves as a model and epistemological crucible where ideas can be tested — and through mutation and natural selection — mixed martial arts are continuously evolving mechanisms. In the early UFC, strikers (boxers, kickboxers, etc.) that didn't know grappling (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or "BJJ" to be specific), would face inevitable doom. Then, as strikers started learning BJJ, "BJJ-only" martial artists had to evolve their game and incorporate striking. Today's mixed martial artists must be competent in both striking and grappling — at least, the successful ones — continuing to prove out Lee's philosophy.
Just right conflict
My employees regularly tell me to go to hell. Not literally, of course, but they openly challenge my ideas as they know I'm looking for the best ideas, not my idea. The best leaders I've worked for fostered this ecosystem.
Encouraging conflict doesn't mean screaming over each other, character attacks or demeaning others' ideas; in fact, quite the contrary. It's genuinely seeking the best possible challenge to your idea — and committing to pressure test multiple contrasting ideas — so the strongest potential idea can come to life.
In between the extremes of the "no octagon" and the "no rules octagon" (a dog-eat-dog toxic environment where bullying wins the day) models lies a key balance — the place where employees' ideas are valued and tested.
Organizations that are content to remain unbalanced: beware. For the "no octagon" model, consider this survey of 2,000 people that found nearly half of employee resignations were due to feeling unappreciated. For those that haven't resigned (yet), 65% said they would work harder if they felt their contributions were recognized by management. For the "no rules octagon" firm, consider this survey of 2,202 people — the number one reason people resigned was because of toxic company culture (62%).
Strong leaders and companies will thread this needle to ensure employees' ideas are valued and in a safe space where they need not fear their character or employment is a target for having a dissenting view.
Related: The 10 Benefits of Conflict
Leaders, "be water"
Senior leaders and managers: to actualize our organization's fullest potential, there are some powerful takeaways on offer in these surveys, Jeet Kune Do epistemology and the evolution of mixed martial arts.
- Create the octagon. If you're already creating a place for your team to exchange and cultivate ideas, keep going. If you haven't, frankly, you can't afford not to if a strong and thriving group/company is your aim. Start with something right in front of you — a project or challenge — and pull in your team for their input. Ensure you communicate the value of their opinions and ask for conflicting opinions. Implement this on a go-forward basis for all key projects.
- Ensure "just right conflict." The extremes of "no octagon" and "octagon with no rules" create the same effect — dysfunctional teams/organizations never reaching their potential and a steady stream of resignations. If you're out of balance, pull it back to the middle where your employees' ideas are taken into consideration, while also ensuring zero tolerance for bullying. "Just right conflict" ensures ideas are pressed, not one's character or dignity.
- Listen and ensure all votes are In. Leaders should certainly challenge their teams, but first and foremost listen with an open mind. Then, ensure all team members have given input so the magic of the octagon evolution can happen. Eventually, leaders must make decisions, but strong leaders don't ask their team to "follow orders" on key missions without their input first.
If employees are a company's greatest asset, leveraging the best of an organization requires an ecosystem of ongoing employee engagement and idea exchange. With this culture, because ideas are valued, employees are valued. When ideas are flowing and pressure tested, new strategies and forms come to life. Without this culture and "just right conflict," optimal evolutionary fitness and collective potential will remain unrealized — and unrealized potential in your company will force employees to eventually realize the potential in someone else's.
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