How (and when) to take sides and still be a good collaborator

Conflict curtails productivity. In the U.S., employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict at work, according to CPP Global’s Human Capital Report. But its negative effects do not end there. Heated discussions tend to demoralize staff and lead to increased employee turnover. After an argument, animosity and distrust can loom. In all-too-common worst-case scenarios, discussions are brought to a standstill and the main issues meant to be addressed are never taken care of.

Sometimes divisive arguments can’t be solved diplomatically. Instead, an iron fist may be needed to ensure productivity doesn’t grind to a screeching halt. Realizing that, I reached out to entrepreneurs and managers to ask the question: “When is it appropriate to actually pick sides?”

Here’s what they have to say.


Leadership over diplomacy

“Always pick a side,” says Ursula Lauriston, editor-in-chief of Capitol Standard. “The only time a manager doesn’t need to pick a side is when the conflict is of a personal nature. At that time, the manager may have to explain that such things need to be left outside of the workplace. However when conflict does arise during projects regarding who’s in charge of what and who finishes what, you absolutely have to pick a side or a direction.” Many times, a simple argument can cause people to either doubt their abilities or to protest by stopping their work. In those situations, leaders are tasked to make a decision.

Lauriston adds, “Everyone is looking to you to steer the ship, and picking sides is absolutely part of charting the course of the project and the business. I have found that the person who may look like they lost out won’t hold a grudge (at least not for long).”

Businesses win when their management teams address issues quickly. Often, failure to act allows sparring team members to let bad emotions build up. “Your team will be more frustrated and have less morale if the leader never makes any hard and fast decisions,” says Lauriston. “Being in this position is a great burden, but a good team understands that and will want to move forward for the good of the project.”


Thinking logically, not emotionally

At 12 Labs, CEO Durga P. Pandey chooses sides all the time. “The choosing is based not on my affection for one party, but on what is reasonable, logical and leads to progress,” he says. Emotions can cause people to act irrationally. Leaders entering an argument must remain impartial and think practically.

“Endless arguments are really time wasting and I’d rather choose a side and make a quick mistake than allow the fear of discomfort to stop me from adopting one point of view over another,” Pandey says. “Also, it sends a clear signal that I’m not there to please everyone, but to create a successful growing business.”


Building bridges instead of burning them

Of course, not everyone is convinced that company leaders should intervene with a final decision. Andrew Thomas, co-founder of SkyBell, argues, “In the absence of clear cut conclusions, I’ve found that crucial conversations demand that we elevate above choosing sides, and instead focus on mutual purpose and mutual respect. As a leader, people look to us to resolve arguments by staying in the middle, and focusing on nobler goals like protecting culture, purpose and holding space for employees to feel safe to grow and express.”

By reminding everyone about their shared values, team members have the opportunity to make more reasonable, goal-oriented decisions.


Remembering the marathon

In some instances, Corey Blake, founder and president of Round Table Companies, has been the catalyst for conflict at the office. Blake admits, “At times, I’ve been the one pitting people against one another. As a creative agency, quality and deadlines work against one another. At one point, I asked my director of ops to reign in our executive editor’s team. My request valued deadlines over creative quality and put them at opposite ends of the rope pulling in different directions. That request created terrible tension and demoralized everyone.”

Finally, Blake realized that was not a winning strategy, so he tried a different method. “We had to take the time to slow down, deeply listen, and then find a new approach that put them on the same team, not opposing teams. That was the right choice.”


Closing thoughts

Leaders should pick a side when the best solution is obvious and eschew conflict when personal agendas are the root cause. On the other hand, some entrepreneurs argue that all parties need to come to the same conclusion to maintain strong working relationships and guarantee the success of future collaborations. Just remember that a common misconception about collaboration is that collaboration equals democracy. It doesn’t. So, when an office debate derails productivity, a leader should step in and take action by making a decision or coordinating initiatives that help team members reach an agreement.

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190