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Conflict: A Key to Making the Right Call

Two of the most colorful personalities in baseball in the 1970s and early ‘80s were Earl Weaver and Billy Martin, managers of the rival Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, respectively. Both were legendary for their heated and over-the-top arguments with umpires. Google either one of them and you’ll find several video hits of their dustups with the men in blue.

Weaver would often storm out of the dugout, spin his hat around backward and get nose-to-nose with the ump as he let him have it over whatever call drew his ire. Martin would get similarly in the face of the offending arbiter, but his signature move was kicking the dirt at his shoes. Epic confrontations, to be sure. It’s clear that neither was averse to something many people on teams often are: CONFLICT.

Weaver and Martin knew before they ever left the dugout that nothing they were going to do or say was going to change the call, yet out they came, determined to have their say. The umpires knew they’d end up throwing them out at some point, yet they still stood there and took an earful. Maybe they really did get the call wrong and hearing about it would help them do a better job next time. Regardless, debating a tight call was a necessary part of getting it right to keep the game fair. So, despite the discomfort, both parties engaged in that conflict.

Conflict gets a bad rap. While I don’t recommend nose-to-nose shouting matches or kicking dirt on each other’s shoes (hopefully your office has better flooring) the truth is that to make the most effective decisions, all teams need to engage in healthy, productive, ideological conflict. Once you’ve built trust among team members, mining for conflict is the best way to make sure that everyone on the team has a voice and that all ideas and opinions have been explored and talked through.

Even technical teams have plenty of important decisions to make. Design patterns and architecture, build processes, code review policy, sprint length, story pointing and more all can be hotbeds for varying opinions and ideas. To make the best decisions, everyone’s input is needed. Technical, analytical minds are a natural habitat for strong opinions.

Healthy conflict has even proven to be foundational for at least one Fortune 100 company. In this interview with Jen Fitzpatrick, the executive in charge of Google Maps, she calls out debate as one of their core cultural elements, influential to the company’s growth from the beginning.

Avoiding conflict often keeps critical information and ideas in the dark. This can lead to a lack of commitment by certain team members and leave you with little chance for success if everyone wasn’t able to lay their options on the table.

As the leader, you need to make sure all those opinions are voiced in a productive and respectful manner. It pays to get the team to establish ground rules up front for how to have a productive and respectful debate. Take time to discover your team’s conflict profile and make sure everyone understands where the boundaries are. Let them know it’s ok if a line gets crossed occasionally, just be sure both parties are quick to apologize and maintain a trusting relationship.

Even if the call doesn’t go their way, most people, even major league managers, will ultimately be okay with it if they’ve had their fair say in the matter. Just be prepared to dust off your shoes.

Read more about team dynamics in my other post, Trust: The Foundation for Team Success.

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