Disagree and Commit to Replacing You With Someone More Fun

Here’s Business Insider on the latest trend from HR departments:

“Top tech companies are increasingly looking for people who, in the spirit of pushing the organization forward, know how to argue effectively. If you’re just going to nod your head and smile at every idea that comes your way, you’re probably not welcome.”

I am seeing this more and more from companies, but especially tech companies — when trouble strikes, they respond by shifting their hiring strategy. But while it’s not necessary a bad thing to think about (or even take some steps on), more than anything else it’s a dodge from the underlying challenge, and an unrealistic one at that.

See, it’s one thing to hire unethical people, people who steal, or callous, sociopathic people who step all over their colleagues. You never want those people, and you’ve almost certainly baked that fact into your hiring strategy already. More often than not, people who act like that simply… have a tendency to act like that, regardless of how incongruent it is from the overall environment. In their own perverse way, sociopaths and selfish people can thrive in healthy (but naive) cultures because there’s so much to take advantage of, just like fascism can thrive in a liberal (but naive) democracy.

Aversion to conflict is not like that. Here’s why.

Conflict is subjective

Selfishness is pretty straightforward. Most organizations don’t (and often can’t) design goals well enough so that employees can apply a laser-like focus to them without screwing over other people. That is not a real-world organization staffed by humans; it’s a fantasy that withers and dies once it leaves a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, every day lots of people make decisions to support other people on a very personal level, subsume a personal goal, or adjust a complicated plan to help give someone else a better chance to hit their goal, or just get through a bad spot. If you can’t recall ever doing this, you likely either work at a massive organization where nothing matters, or people probably kind of hate working with you, whether they admit it or not.

Good working relationships — real, human ones, not something you can proscribe via company values or an employee handbook — involve two or more smart people having sufficient empathy for each other to find a good balance here. What if I can save a couple thousand dollars off my budget by terminating a money-losing partnership set up by a former employee, but it will be accounted as churn during my account management colleague’s roughest quarter for retention (even though it’s not actual revenue churn)? By letting this slide for another quarter, am I being conflict averse or supporting my teammates? By drawing the line and demanding every resource our plan entitles me to, am I laser-focused on my goals and performance, or an unhelpful, cultural cancer?

It’s not an obvious answer, and if you think it is, you are probably either (a) kind of a sociopath, or (b) in a position where you face relatively little personal risk over business outcomes. In fact, let’s talk about that.

Aversion to conflict is often not a trait, but a choice

One of the more interesting concepts related to professional development and communication styles I’ve learned over the years is the idea of “adapted workplace style”. Basically, it’s the idea that everybody has their own personality, and obviously all or a lot of that impacts the way they work with others. But it’s not quite that simple — those of us with some amount of awareness and self-control often adapt aspects of our personality we either know or anticipate will be problematic in our working environment, which is why we act differently at work than we do at home.

For instance, as my very best friends (and a few acquaintances who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time) can tell you, my natural state when there’s nothing important to be done is essentially “lazy, cynical, self-righteous pain-in-the-ass”. I know this, because I was born this way, and my parents, teachers, friends, wife, cat, etc. have helped me understand the difference between when it’s amusing and lovable, and when it’s unhelpful and frustrating. This process is called “growing up”.

For me, though, one result is that I have a significantly adapted workplace style (I’ve actually taken some tests that made this same observation about me) that heavily leans into the things I have a natural tendency to ignore. While I still sound like me, and think like me, and have the same professional talents and gaps you’d expect me to have if you knew me, I make a concerted effort to focus on being the very opposite of lazy, cynical, and self-righteous. Sometimes, when I get to know people really well, those folks will see more elements of my non-work personality. It’s usually fine — again, these are almost always people who have grown to trust me and feel comfortable calling me out or lovingly telling me to shut up — but it’s always surprising to people who strictly know me as a reliable, collaborative partner at work, even if we’re just cracking jokes at a bar after work.

The point of all this is that of all the different unicorn qualities people try to hire for (“scrappiness”, emotional intelligence, entrepreneurial-mindset, etc.), the tendency for people to stand up for what they think is the right decision is one of the most adaptable things that exists. When you combine that with the fact that most people have jobs because they need money and careers to live and grow (duh), the end result is that “how much someone speaks their mind” is an incredibly fungible factor. People adapt, and they definitely adapt to the kinds of things that hurt their well-beings. How a company handles their opinion is one of those things.

That’s another decent segue, so let’s do it.

The culture and meaning of conflict is most heavily influenced by today’s organization, not new hires

Let’s tie this all together. You’ve got a highly sensitive, highly subjective concept — conflict — the definition of which self-aware, emotionally healthy people are especially good at adapting to, and you’re going to offer those people a great career so long as they learn to successfully navigate that definition to your liking. If they fail to interpret that properly, you’re going to sadly write them off as the wrong kind of person for the job.

Given that, what’s more likely — that new employees will dictate how your company defines healthy conflict, or that your existing company habits and leaders will (directly or not) dictate how strongly those employees stand up for what they believe in? Hilariously enough, the only people who safe bets to not regress to the mean of your existing culture of conflict-aversion are the sociopathic type-As you already know you don’t want. Conflict doesn’t bother them at all, and they’ll be sure to create it every single time it benefits them, regardless of what kind it is, or whether it’s good the organization as a whole. I really only see a couple ways out of this.

One is a world that requires perfect architecture — where people are basically independent, self-interested achievement bots, and we need a flawless algorithm (a.k.a., OKRs/goals) to keep them from inevitably eating each other alive.

The other is a world with what fees like an impossibly flawless working culture. On one hand, self-aware leadership purged of storied entrepreneurial vices like stubbornness, tunnel-vision, quick-tempers, and misdirected passion. On the other, front-line workers and middle management who constantly operate entirely in good faith, with zero fear of bad consequences for doing their best and speaking their mind, despite visible, daily reminders that those consequences are bigger than ever for themselves, their careers, and their families.

Which world are you betting on? I honestly don’t know which feels more plausible.

Nobody said this would be easy

I want to end this on a positive note, but I’m not sure I can. Given the subject (candor!), I’m not sure I should. After all, everywhere I’ve ever been, people have begged for me to be as real and as honest as possible (especially once they’re confident I’m a decent human being who cares about the well-being of the people around me)… until they don’t. And almost everyone (except a few truly exceptional co-workers I can probably count on one hand) has hit that point, where generic conflict turns into “a subject I’m very sensitive about” and the rules change, and change fast. A point where someone’s honest, thoughtful, nerve-wracking assessment becomes proof that they “just don’t get it”, are a “poor culture fit”, or “can be difficult to work with”.

We’ve had that conversation with so many of you, so many times, with the same productive, agreeable look on our faces, with “Radical Candor” on the bookshelf behind you, as you cut us off quicker and quicker while the argument escalates, and we silently, carefully recalibrate our approach to the subject, and in some cases, to you in general. And how do our leading organizations respond to this obvious problem?

“We need to hire people who aren’t afraid of conflict!”

Good luck, Corporate America.