Amazon is a company that is known for innovation and moving fast. Jeff Bezos once said, “Failure and innovation are inseparable twins.” I agree, and combined with speedy decision making, fast innovation means fast failure. Failure is a valuable tool for learning, sharing, and correcting errors to improve our innovations. This is not just a philosophy, it’s a scientific principle as well as a mathematical intuition used in such machine learning algorithms as gradient descent. In order to do this right, however, invested parties have a responsibility to challenge the decisions of both their peers and their leaders. Amazon has a leadership principle called “Have backbone; Disagree & Commit”. Upholding this principle is crucial to success, but it is often coupled with conflict.
Executed correctly, conflict is actually a valuable mechanism for constructing positive change. That said, lately I seem to be involved in more conflict than usual. While I’m sure the perpetual daily tension of this past year, coupled with isolated video engagement with others, has something to do with it…I still have a responsibility to explore failed conversations, learn from these failures, and improve my engagements in a way that once again makes conflict a useful tool for constructing positive change.
So what has been the source of frustration and negative conflict in myself and others? By no means is this an exhaustive list, but I discovered these three sources that were repeatedly identified as contributors to frustration:
Lack of a shared vocabulary
I keep observing in myself and others a general assumption that the idea or concept that we intend to convey by the use of words will travel unadulterated through sound waves, hitting the ear drums of our recipients, their brain will then unpackage these sounds and then convey the message exactly as originally intended by the sender. This just isn’t reality. Often, two people keep using similar words with different intended meanings. This results in these two people talking past each other, becoming more and more frustrated as it appears the other person is just being completely unreasonable. When we start to recognize this pattern, it is crucial that we pause, take a step back and clarify the message that you are hearing: “Can we pause for one moment? When I hear you say (fill in the blank), I interpret it as (your perception). Is that what you mean to say?”. Seriously — this will save you so much wasted time.
This is similar to needing a shared vocabulary, but the focus here is more on lack of action. Frustration and anger are often born out of unspoken demands. One person feels they made it very clear that they wanted another person to take action in some way, and when that person failed to do so they become frustrated…or even enraged. Instead of using an ambiguous pronoun, like “we”, direct your request at the person you want to get it done. For example, instead of saying “we need to setup a follow-up meeting to address these action items”…try: “John, would you set up a follow-up meeting…”. I’ve also found the word “should” to be the source of many issues: “I’m afraid we haven’t thoroughly tested this system. You should probably put it through some more rigorous testing before shipping it out.” You get the idea.
Lack of setting clear expectations
This is a big one, and it cannot be accomplished without the prior two. You have no right to get frustrated or upset with something not done or done incorrectly if you failed to set clear expectations. Clear expectations:
- State exactly what you expect to be done (using a shared vocabulary) and by whom (without ambiguous terms)
- They attach a date to those expectations, and adjust that date if the other person is unwilling to deliver at that time.
- They end with a summary or follow-up on what was agreed.
Many people are just not comfortable doing this. They feel like they are being bossy or overstepping their bounds. I guarantee you in most cases, the other person wants this. Put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t you want to know exactly what the other person is expecting you to do and when they expect it? Wouldn’t you at least like the opportunity to manage their expectations if you don’t agree to deliver as they expect? Trust me, it’s much easier to have this conversation than the frustrated conflict that is a result of not doing this.
In closing, I hope this is as helpful to you as it has been to me. I’m curious what other sources you may have found, and what solutions have worked for you. Keep your conflict healthy and positive, and work to build each other up!