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What Bruce Lee can teach us about the benefits of conflict

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Can business leaders argue that employees are their greatest asset without providing ongoing forums for open exchange of ideas?

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 to all styles to find what works – and along the way, “absorb what is usefulthrow out what’s useless and add what’s specifically yours.” Lee’s brilliance goes way beyond martial arts, in that truly strengthening an organization (and your character, for that matter) requires constant ideas and adjustments.

In weak business ecosystems, there are no forums for exchanging ideas and/or negative consequences for expressing an opinion against the prevailing orthodoxy. In the worst case scenario, it could cost you employment. To a lesser extent, you may be viewed as “belligerent” (even if you speak your ideas respectfully) and see the “yes” people being promoted.

In both scenarios, an ecosystem is created where strong employees who value the exchange of ideas eventually look elsewhere, further weakening the ecosystem that has been left behind. For boats to rise, the tide must rise. In business ecosystems, organizations and leaders that cultivate “just right conflict” through the octagon of ideas will realize the ecosystem’s highest evolutionary suitability—the cultural tide that will raise the boats.

Related: Why the Best Entrepreneurs Have Employees Who Disagree With Them

Evolution through the octagon of ideas

I vividly remember the weakest business ecosystem I’ve 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 out-of-the-box employees tended to move on, while loyalists remained content with the status quo.

Employees want to be authentically involved and their opinion counts. Strong leaders realize that involving the input of their employees before decisions are made is not only crucial for employee satisfaction, but also for actually 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 gain 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 melting pot 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.) who didn’t know grappling (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or “BJJ” to be specific) would inevitably face doom. When strikers started learning BJJ, martial artists using only BJJ needed to further develop their game and make it stand out. Today’s mixed martial artists must be proficient in both hitting and wrestling—at least the successful ones—to continue to prove Lee’s philosophy.

Related: Manage the Status Quo or Lead the Disruption

Just right conflict

My co-workers regularly tell me that I have to go to hell. Not literally, of course, but they openly challenge my ideas because they know I’m looking for the best ideas, not my idea. The best leaders I’ve worked for have nurtured this ecosystem.

Encouraging conflict does not mean shouting at each other, attacking character, or demeaning other people’s ideas; in fact quite the contrary. It really is seeking the best possible challenge for your idea – and committing to pressure testing multiple contrasting ideas – so that the strongest potential idea can come to life.

Between the extremes of the “no octagon” and the “no rules octagon” (a dog-and-dog toxic environment where bullying prevails) lies a key balance – the place where employees’ ideas are valued and tested.

Organizations that are content to remain unbalanced: beware. For the “no octagonal” model, consider: this survey among 2,000 people which found that nearly half of employee layoffs were due to a sense of being unappreciated. Of those who have not (yet) resigned, 65% said they would work harder if they felt their contributions were recognized by management. For the company “no rules octagon” consider: this survey among 2,202 people — the main reason people resigned was because of the toxic corporate culture (62%).

Strong leaders and companies will thread this needle to ensure that employees’ ideas are valued and in a safe space where they don’t have to fear their character or work is a target for dissent.

Related: The 10 Benefits of Conflict

Leaders, “be water”

Senior leaders and managers: To realize the full potential of our organization, there are some powerful takeaways in these studies, the epistemology of Jeet Kune Do and the evolution of mixed martial arts.

  1. Make the octagon. If you’re already creating a place for your team to exchange and cultivate ideas, keep going. If you haven’t, you honestly can’t afford not to if a strong and thriving group/company is your goal. Start with something right in front of you – a project or challenge – and ask your team for their input. Be sure to communicate the value of their opinions and ask for conflicting opinions. Implement this on a progressive basis for all major projects.
  2. Get ‘just right conflict’. The extremes of “no octagon” and “no octagon” create the same effect: dysfunctional teams/organizations that never reach their potential and a steady stream of layoffs. If you’re off balance, pull it back to the center where your employees’ ideas are considered, while also ensuring zero tolerance for bullying. “Just right conflict” causes ideas to be squeezed, not one’s character or dignity.
  3. Listen and make sure all the voices are in. Leaders should definitely challenge their teams, but first and foremost listen with an open mind. Then make sure all team members have provided input so that the magic of the octagon evolution can take place. Ultimately, leaders must make decisions, but strong leaders don’t ask their team to “follow orders” on important missions without their input first.

When employees are a company’s greatest asset, harnessing the best of an organization requires an ecosystem of continuous employee engagement and the exchange of ideas. With this culture, because ideas are valued, employees are valued. When ideas flow and are tested under pressure, new strategies and shapes come to life. Without this culture and ‘just the right conflict’, optimal evolutionary fitness and collective potential will not be realized – and unrealized potential in your company will force employees to eventually realize the potential in someone else’s.

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