The Science of Productive Conflict: Transcript

WorkLife with Adam Grant

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Listen Along

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:00:00] My wife, Abby likes to have a lot, just a lot of things. And this includes food. So when Abby orders let's say pizza, we have five people in our family. She might come home with four pizzas. She may come home with five pizzas.

ADAM GRANT: [00:00:18] This is Glennon Doyle -- bestselling author and nonprofit leader. She’s married to soccer star Abby Wambach. And Glennon does not know what to do about Abby's over-ordering habit.

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:00:29] And so this is an issue for us too much food, not enough food. Um, over-ordering under ordering. I think we fight about it maybe once a week.

ADAM GRANT: [00:00:37] And her wife Abby, well, she’s at a point where she wants to avoid this conflict altogether…

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:00:44] And also it's exhausting sounding God, sometimes I just want to agree to disagree just so we can move beyond this…

GLENNON DOYLE: And well, you do!

ADAM GRANT: [00:00:51] Let’s just agree to disagree. I hate when people say that. Because it means they’ve given up.
They’ve decided that their conflict is unresolvable. And there are few things that cause me more pain than seeing a conflict go unresolved.
Conflicts at home and work often seem different, but they have similar roots-- and similar remedies. In any relationship, conflict is inevitable-- but it isn’t unsolvable.

I’m Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I’m an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I take you inside the minds of fascinating people to rethink how we work, lead, and live.

Today: How the keys to handling conflict at work and in life are often hiding in plain sight.

Thanks to Verizon for sponsoring this episode.

Every relationship in every team in every workplace has conflicts. We disagree about big decisions-- who to hire, how to improve a culture, whether to let people keep working remotely. We also disagree about smaller issues-- what time to meet, what to put first on the agenda, and how many pizzas to order-- or at least which toppings.

Extensive research shows that conflict has a big impact on cohesion and performance. The key issue, though, is not how often we have conflict-- it’s how well we manage it. The goal isn’t to have less conflict; it’s to have the right kind of conflict. And to do that, we need to start by recognizing what we’re actually arguing about -- which is often not what we think we’re arguing about at all.

But confronting any type of conflict can be uncomfortable. For most of my life, I’ve been afraid of conflict. I’ve shied away from telling friends they have food in their teeth. I’ve hesitated to tell bankers they were hazing their employees. I’ve failed to say anything to writers who have borrowed a little too liberally from my work. I don’t want to hurt their feelings or damage the relationship. I want to be liked.

Two decades ago, I went through conflict mediation training. I came away with invaluable lessons about how to handle conflict. I don’t always succeed in applying the skills to my own life, but they do come in handy with others.

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:03:20]I come from a family that didn't waste anything. Okay. I'm scarcity. Abby is abundance.

ADAM GRANT: [00:03:25] Earlier this year, I was in the middle of a live virtual event with Glennon Doyle. She wondered what advice I had on resolving conflict, so I asked her for a concrete example.

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:03:36] So Abby will just over overdo things, and then I will judge her and then I will be annoyed, and then she will feel sad.

ADAM GRANT: [00:03:44] Okay. So do you want to play Abby or is she available?

GLENNON DOYLE : [00:03:48] Okay, I'll get her. Can you come here?


ADAM GRANT: [00:03:55] So I should tell you, there, there are 350 people here and we wanted to put you on [00:04:00] stage to resolve a conflict in your marriage. Are you cool with it?

ABBY WAMBACH: Yeah, totally. Which, which conflict?

ADAM GRANT: I heard a rumor that sometimes you might order 17 extra pizzas. What's going on here? [00:04:09] What what's going on here?

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:04:11] I grew up in a big family and there was always food, but in order to get seconds, you needed to finish everything on your plate. Sometimes you've finished everything on your plate and then all the food is gone. So in me, I have a total fear of scarcity. Like, like there will not be enough. Absolutely. And to be the person that is in charge of our entire family's intake. I don't want anybody to experience that, that feeling of scarcity. So those two things smushed together forces me to order more than we probably need for that dinner.

ADAM GRANT: [00:04:48] That that's beautiful. So first of all, I just think what an inexpensive way to feel secure. Most people pay thousands of dollars for therapy when they're dealing with those kinds of demons. Right. And here you can order some extra pizzas. I feel like that's a good deal.

As Glennon and described their conflict. I immediately thought of the ladder of inference.It’s the first step to untangling a messy conflict -- and bringing it back to the essence of what it’s actually about.
[00:05:17] The basic idea is that many of our conflicts come from making the wrong assumptions about other people’s behavior. It’s not enough to take their perspective-- we actually need to go out and get their perspective. Think about a conflict you’ve had with a friend, a coworker or a new manager. Now, imagine your views on a ladder from observations up to assumptions up to conclusions. At the bottom of your ladder are specific observations you’ve made about the other person. Glennon’s observation was that Abby ordered too much pizza.

[00:05:50] Then Glennon walked up a step and made some assumptions.
“Abby doesn’t care about conserving food. Abby doesn’t care about saving money.”
After it [00:06:00] happened multiple times, their conflict escalated and Glennon finished climbing up the ladder to a conclusion: “Abby is wasteful.”

From then on, every time Abby ordered too much of anything, it just reinforced Glennon's conclusion: "That's so Abby, she always does this."

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:06:17] And then I will judge her and then she will feel sad.

ADAM GRANT: [00:06:19] What Glennon doesn't see is that Abby has a ladder of her own Abby's observation. Is that growing up, she often felt scarcity around food. And Abby's assumption is that it's up to her to protect her family from that.

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:06:34]And to be the person that is in charge of our entire family's intake. I don't want anybody to experience that, that feeling of scarcity.

ADAM GRANT: [00:06:43] Abby’s conclusion is that she’s being caring, not wasteful. And she thinks Glennon is being controlling. In conflict, the mistake we make is that we argue only about our conclusions. "You’re wasteful!" "No I’m not, I’m caring… and you’re controlling!"

What we need to do is walk down the ladder to share our observations and assumptions-- and invite the other person to do the same.

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:07:07] What an inexpensive way to find security. Just some extra slices of pizza.

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:07:16] You just solved a sincere… how many conflicts / issues have we had over that? We’ve had 20 outward conflicts around this thing. How many inward would you say you’ve had?

GLENNON DOYLE: [00:07:31] ... infinity (Laughs)

ADAM GRANT: [00:07:38] Conflict comes in multiple flavors. Walking down the ladder of inference can help with identifying what kind you’re having. Let’s start with task conflict versus relationship conflict. Task conflict is disagreeing about the problem, the solution, or the decision—and that can be both necessary and productive.
[00:07:56] Relationship conflict is fighting about differences in personalities or values. And that’s sometimes unnecessary and usually destructive. In healthy partnerships and productive teams, we’re able to have task conflict without relationship conflict. But all too often, they get blurred.
Glennon and Abby started out with a simple task conflict: how much pizza to order. But it quickly became a relationship conflict: Glennon’s desire to avoid wasting was clashing with Abby’s desire to avoid scarcity.

[00:08:27] They needed to figure out how to have the task conflict without it affecting their relationship.

ABBY WAMBACH : [00:08:32] It's so true. Yeah. So we want to get our relationship issues to become a task issue.

ADAM GRANT: [00:08:36] Abby wants to feel secure. Glennon wants to avoid being wasteful. So how do they accomplish both goals?

GELNNON DOYLE: [00:08:45] We said, okay, if you over order, can we commit to eating the leftovers?

ADAM GRANT: [00:08:49] Nice.

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:08:52] I'd become a leftover person..

GELNNON DOYLE: [00:08:55] Yes. Like I'm okay. If we're going to eat the leftovers and not just throw them away. And that that seemed to work.

ABBY WAMBACH: [00:09:01] mostly, mostly works ...


ADAM GRANT: Navigating relationship conflict is rarely this simple. At work, your team isn’t always full of people you fell in love with. Sometimes you might not even like the person.

And conflicts can get messier when you are working with someone senior or lateral to you.
Relationship conflict isn’t the only kind of counterproductive conflict.
There’s also status conflict.

CORINNE BENDERSKY: [00:09:27] Status conflict is about where we fit in the hierarchy that we're in together. So I think I'm higher in this informal status hierarchy than you. And you think you're higher in this informal status hierarchy than me or we're equal, but you're acting like you're higher.

ADAM GRANT: [00:09:43] meet Corinne. Benderski she's an expert on conflict at UCLA and she puts status conflict on the map. It's not about clashes of values or personalities. It's about who's in charge who gets to decide what should happen in this situation.

Corinne is not just a researcher-- she’s also a conflict mediator. So we called her to help two coworkers identify and resolve a conflict.

CORINNE BENDERSKY: [00:10:08] So here we are. Daniel, Orrin. I'm Corinne. It's nice to meet you officially. I am grateful for you to share the opportunity to, uh, work with me on this workplace mediation with you guys.

DANIEL: [00:10:21] Hello. My name is Daniel Yubi. I'm a product manager and I'm from Mexico living in London. Starting out in a new company, being from another country, it's been a little bit challenging because I was on boarded remotely.

ADAM GRANT: [00:10:34]: Daniel has been working for about a year in a software company in the UK -- AND he has only met some coworkers in person ONCE!

DANIEL: [00:10:41] It's really hard to understand. Yeah. How to, I guess, bonding connect with other people. You need to introduce yourself by trying to create those moments on Slack. I've worked with a lot of energies. I am a very excitable person I guess.

ADAM GRANT: [00:10:54] Daniel has been learning the ropes in this new job and figuring out how to work with his new team. But things started to get fuzzy between him and one of his closest coworkers -- Orrin.

ORRIN: [00:11:05] Hey, my name is Orrin. I'm a senior delivery manager.

ADAM GRANT: [00:11:08] Although Orrin is more senior in the company, they have the same boss, and the hierarchy is not always clear. In some tasks, Daniel gives assignments to Orrin…
Over time, Daniel has experienced a few tense moments with Orrin, and he’s not always sure where to draw the line on his responsibilities.

DANIEL: [00:11:25] He was off and I sent him a message on Slack, saying, Hey, I just wanted to know if it was okay that I sent the meeting... but on, on Slack, the way he replied back, it was ...Why are you doing my job? And he was writing with like full stops ...

ORRIN: [00:11:41] "Sure." Full-stop, or "I'm on it." Full stop. (Laughs)

DANIEL: [00:11:44] Well, my perception. Harsh and serious.

And I'm like, "Oh my God, what's happened with this guy, man?? Why is he shutting me down?" Right. Like, and then I decided, you know, what is, it's more important to discuss and have it communicate than just don't do anything. [00:12:00] So I, I sent him an invite and I think he just declined the invite. I felt like why he's being so rude? And for that day, and then the next coming weeks, and it was just uncomfortable because now I was like, Oh, maybe this is going to create a conflict, but ...

ADAM GRANT: [00:12:16] Right. It might sound on the surface, like basic communication trouble, but actually there are multiple kinds of conflict going on here. When you're in the midst of conflict. It's often hard to take a step back and see what kind you're in clarifying that can help you solve it. But Danielle and Orrin didn't get to fully identify the issue right away.

So a few weeks later, another conflict emerged. They had a big opportunity to work on a major project, and Daniel gave clear instructions to Orrin to prepare for the next meeting.

DANIEL: [00:12:46]: The moment I sent that email to Orrin, I just removed that from my to-do list. And I didn't follow up whatsoever.

ORRIN: [00:12:53] I was under the assumption that. Daniel was on the same page. so a couple of hours or an hour before that meeting occurred

DANIEL: [00:13:03] I said to Orrin... everything's ready for today. Right? And he said, what are you talking about? I was like, yeah, I send you an email specifically saying, we need to do all these things. And he said, well, I didn't, I didn't do it. I'm sorry.

ADAM GRANT: [00:13:17] It turned out that instead of doing things the way Daniel prescribed, Orrin had gone straight to their boss, changed the plan and didn’t update Daniel until an hour before the meeting!

DANIEL: [00:13:26] And that annoyed me more.

ADAM GRANT: You’ve probably had a disagreement with a colleague escalate into a conflict. Even though it starts small it can have big consequences. Corinne had them walk down the ladder of inference… and share their assumptions...

DANIEL: [00:13:41] I sent him an invite and he just declined the invite. And I'm like, what is up with this guy?

ORRIN: [00:13:46] I think he must've thought this guy is absolutely ghosting me cause he hates my guts because he has very clearly made clear that delivery is his thing. And Daniel should not touch delivery is probably what he interpreted early on.

ADAM GRANT: [00:14:00] So what kind of conflict were they having? To me, it sounded like a relationship conflict, a clash of their personalities with Daniel being conscientious and Orrin being more spontaneous. And that created a status conflict where Daniel felt Orrin overstepped his bounds.

CORINNE: [00:14:17] think it started with the relationship conflict. Then that manifested as a task conflict, which was interpreted at least by Daniel as a status conflict.

ADAM GRANT: [00:14:24] There are different solutions to relationship conflict and status conflict.
Let’s look at relationship conflict first. In the mediation, Corinne asked them to describe their personality differences.

DANIEL: [00:14:36] I would consider myself quite intense, quiet, uh, like, like we need to do these. We need to move. We need to just do a lot.

ORRIN: [00:14:44] be very like, I guess, quite impulsive. I guess I'm very poor at prioritization.

ADAM GRANT: [00:14:51] Describing personality differences is a way of walking down the ladder of inference-- from conclusions to assumptions to observations. It can help strip away the layers to reveal what’s really at the core of the conflict.
Corinne worked with them to understand their different communication styles and how they set expectations…

DANIEL: [00:15:09] To, to understand how he sees the world, how he wants to do everything.

ORRIN: [00:15:15] And I'm sort of quite wishy-washy is how I describe myself. I was very surprised actually I made angry or annoyed Daniel with this. I thought it was just the case that what was expected of me was to facilitate a session with the right people.

CORINNE: [00:15:32] I'm glad that you're acknowledging you made assumptions because a lot of times miscommunications like this occur because people make assumptions and then they don't test those assumptions.

ORRIN: [00:15:40] these sorts of communication issues, I've definitely had them. Before Daniel was not the only person that, I've had communication mess-ups with. It's definitely made me a lot more cognizant, not everyone is from the same town that I'm from. And not everyone gets the same jokes and sarcasm and like British humor sometimes doesn’t land. It certainly made me try and sort of think, I guess, a bit more deliberate, I guess, in my communication style.

ADAM GRANT: [00:16:09] As Corinne walked them through their different working styles and personality traits, the root of the relationship conflict became clear.

CORINNE: [00:16:16] Daniel, you're more planful and Orrin, you're more fluid and flexible. I can see how that would potentially cause some problems around expectations around communication.

ADAM GRANT: [00:16:26]. When someone disappoints you, it’s not because of their actions. It’s because of a clash between their actions and your expectations. Understanding their personality can help you rethink your assumptions and conclusions… and adjust your expectations.

DANIEL: [00:16:42] And now that ... now that I understand Orrin better, the washy washy is if he were in a meeting and, um, on the bullet points that were in his thinking, something is missing. It's okay to say, Hey, what about this? We discussed this last week. Oh yeah, you're right. I completely forgot. And just set the expectation, right? with what we're both doing.

ADAM GRANT: [00:17:06] In a relationship conflict, a key to making progress is to gain self-awareness and other-awareness. To improve your communication, it helps to understand how your cultural values and personality traits differ.

CORINNE: [00:17:17] You're not going to fix personality differences, right? We have, our personalities are who we are and what we bring to the table. At best we can seek to understand and recognize the ways in which our personality differences may influence our interactions.

ADAM GRANT: [00:17:35] When you walk down the ladder of inference, it helps you understand yourself better. When you see the other person’s ladder, it helps you understand them better.

CORINNE: [00:17:44] I think actually Daniel and Orrin really did a nice job saying I recognize now, Orrin in particular... that I need to do a better job. Maybe making sure I understand the expectations and writing those down and confirming them with deadlines because he has to be much more mindful of recognizing that in his interactions with Daniel, his default is really problematic

ADAM GRANT: [00:18:08] They’d made some progress on the relationship conflict. But what about status conflict? For Daniel, the core of the conflict with Orrin was all about status. Who has authority over which decisions, and who’s overstepping their responsibilities? Even though Orrin is more senior in the company, he still owes some deliverables to Daniel.

CORINNE: [00:18:30] The fact that they both report to the same boss and maybe are a bit on some levels, they're horizontal peers, but in some other ways, it sounded like Daniel is, you know, has more authority to make strategic decisions and Orrin more of a position of implementation of those decisions ...

ADAM GRANT: [00:18:47] They needed more clarity on roles. That's the first important step toward reducing status conflict.

CORINNE: [00:18:54] With status conflict. I think you really do have to talk about roles. Because, Roles are different from our formal titles. Roles are what are we contributing to this group?

ADAM GRANT: [00:19:03] Corinne recommends that in new projects, managers do a kickoff meeting where there's an explicit discussion of skills and responsibilities.

CORINNE: [00:19:10] What value are they bringing? What is their expertise? What are their resources? What is it that they're contributing to this team that will enable the team to achieve its collective goal. And if I know that you understand what I bring to the table and you know that I understand what you bring to the table, we're much less likely to interact in a way that makes one of us feel disrespected.

ADAM GRANT: [00:19:30] This initial meeting can turn a potential status conflict into a constructive discussion…

CORINNE: [00:19:35] And facilitates the group members negotiating their status hierarchy. So sometimes referred to as a status sorting process.

ADAM GRANT: [00:19:44] Beyond clarifying roles, a second step for dealing with status conflict is to establish respect. Corinne has found that in a status conflict, it helps to make it clear that you value the other person-- their skills, their commitment, or their contribution. Literally by saying it out loud, like “I admire your expertise on financial markets” or “I appreciate how hard you work on tasks that aren’t even in your job description.”

CORINNE: [00:20:08] that lowers the perception of that interaction is threatening and makes them less defensive and more open to working with the other person and maybe resolving the conflict.

ADAM GRANT: [00:20:17] To solve their status conflict, Daniel and Orrin needed to build respect and clarify their roles. So Corinne helped them understand how they complement each other.
As far

ORRIN: [00:20:27] As far as I'm concerned, my role is not really to make decisions for the team it's to help the team get better at decision-making, and how they work within themselves. I'm sort of a coach in that, but not sort of the accounts party for execution.

DANIEL: [00:20:43] I do have more responsibility, because I will need to push Orrin to say, this is what we need to get to this place and I need your help. And of course, if I wasn't doing my job whatsoever, he will tell me: Hey, I don't know where we're going. we are completely lost. And he can also make me be accountable

ADAM GRANT: [00:21:06] And instead of creating tension between their different personalities, they’ve learned to adapt to each other’s styles and work toward a common goal.

DANIEL: [00:21:16] Since that conversation, we separate ourselves and I think we're just doing it by, by nature, not by thinking. It's just, we're separating ourselves to just think about the task and the work we're doing rather than the individual, because we know. We have the best intentions on both ends. No biases, no ego, nothing. And it was really clear after the mediation

ADAM GRANT: [00:21:37] But what if the conflict isn’t just between two people? What if there’s a clash within a team, between teams, or even with the CEO? More on that, after the break.

[00:21:51] Okay, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I play a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. [00:22:00] Today. We're going inside the workplace at Verizon.


ADAM GRANT [00:25:41]: I have a conflict that I’ve been struggling with for years. I’m a morning person. And I work on a team that has long, intense meetings that sometimes go past 1am. Then I struggle to function the next morning.
Eventually, after many exhausted days, I proposed a solution: a 10pm bedtime. [00:26:00] The night owls… did not go for it.

When conflict consumes a whole team or the entire organization, you start to see a faultline-- a divide between different groups. And that can create an earthquake.

research shows that fault lines are common within teams -- and between teams. You can have entire groups that dislike and disrespect each other. Which is not good for performance or morale.

Some fault lines are around status conflict-- there are tensions between groups around who’s running the show. Like sales trying to give orders to engineering or headquarters trying to dictate how a satellite office works.

Other fault lines are around relationship conflict-- groups have clashing values and personalities. Like tensions between the old guard and new hires, or between east coast efficiency and West Coast creativity. In my team, we had a fault line between night owls and morning [00:27:00] people. I wanted to figure out how to solve it. And I came across an unusual process at a payments company called Expensify.

TIM GOLEN: [00:27:08] What we'd like to do at Expensify is we challenge ourselves to really solve hard problems. AND we can't solve hard problems. If we can't have hard conversations,

ADAM GRANT: [00:27:17] tThey have a company-wide system for conflict resolution that they use all the time-- with some remarkable results.
This system was put to the test in the fall of 2020, when their CEO felt that the political climate was threatening Expensify’s future.

DAVID BARRETT: [00:27:31] democracy is crumbling before our very eyes and that's going to create an adverse business climate. And so our solution is we need to unelect Trump. I'm David Barrett, the founder and CEO of Expensify.

ADAM GRANT: [00:27:41] David proposed sending an email to all their users-- 10 million of them!-- that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote against democracy.

Would you want your CEO to send that email to all your customers?

That’s not something every liberal would think is a good idea. And it’s not likely to be something your average conservative employee would be on board with.

TIM GOLEN: [00:28:01] My name is Tim Golen. I'm a director at Expensify. I'm a registered Republican. And I think he made very compelling arguments, but I personally wasn't convinced I think that there was some amount of sensationalizing it like, We'd had a lot of bad presidents in the past and democracy has still survived those presidents.

ADAM GRANT: [00:28:25] Tim didn't agree with David's idea at first, but after it went through their conflict resolution process, he accepted it.

TIM GOLEN: [00:28:33] This process that David used, it's a process that we use over and over and over in the company every day, essentially, to get anything done.

ADAM GRANT: [00:28:41] in October, David sent the email.

DAVID BARRETT: [00:28:43] I wrote it on a Sunday night in probably about a half hour and sent out an email to our 10 million users saying that anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.

ADAM GRANT: [00:28:55] And on a scale from nervous to completely freaking out, what did it feel like to send it?

TIM GOLEN: [00:29:07] I would say it was like a seven on the freaking out scale as like, as basically it's like, okay, you know, we really have no idea what's going to happen here.

ADAM GRANT: [00:29:08] I can’t imagine having a conflict that political at work, let alone resolving it.
But I wanted to understand how their process works-- and see if it applies to the kinds of faultlines I see in teams everyday.

TIM GOLEN: [00:29:22] The first rule is get shit done. And the second rule is don't ruin it for everybody else. And so the first rule is really about everyone just needs to get their work done. They need to do it efficiently and they need to work on the most valuable thing.
Rule number two violations, which are … don't ruin it for everybody else. Like making good decisions for you and for the company.

ADAM GRANT: [00:29:57] tThese rules say a lot about the type of culture Expensify strives for. They emphasize a key value: respect.

Respect people’s ability to get things done, and don’t waste their time or undermine their experiences.

These rules helped establish a public process where anyone can raise an idea or voice an issue. It’s a Slack channel called #What’sNext.

TIM GOLEN: [00:30:20] Yeah, it’s a channel where people just post problem solution statements; you just come up with an idea, you solicit feedback from people in the company, and then you, uh, you know, get volunteers to help you execute it.

ADAM GRANT: [00:30:35] Since many people at Expensify are remote, they use this channel almost every day. Not usually to resolve differences about politics, but to address conflicts around policies and practices. Think about the conflicts in your workplace. They consume a lot of time and energy. Across companies, managers report spending one to two full days of their workweek, resolving conflicts at Expensify.
TIM GOLEN: [00:30:59] For the most part, we expect people to manage themselves and to like fix their own problems.

ADAM GRANT: [00:31:03] The first step is identifying the problem. If you have a problem with a project or procedure, you post it with a possible solution and ask others to weigh in.

TIM GOLEN: [00:31:14] People can question like, "Is that really a problem?" Or "I disagree with that problem. I actually think the problem is this." And so there's a whole discussion that goes around defining what the actual problem is.

ADAM GRANT: [00:31:25] This was a light bulb moment for me. I realized I made a mistake with my night owl colleagues: I jumped to a solution before defining the problem. Psychologists have demonstrated a pattern called solution aversion-- when people don’t like a particular solution, they often deny or dismiss the problem altogether. And if you can’t get people on the other side of a fault line to even recognize the problem, you’re not going to solve it. I asked Tim how we could build a bridge across our fault line and resolve the conflict more effectively.

TIM GOLEN: [00:31:57] I think everything should be boiled down to a problem solution statement. And so anyone that has conflict should be able to identify the problem and then come to the table with a solution. So in this case, if it's the morning people, they would write down their problem solution statement.The problem should only be a sentence, maybe two sentences long, the shorter, the better.For example, when we have a meeting at 10 o'clock at night, I've already been working all day. Extremely exhausted and I can't focus. people can question like, well, Is that really a problem, or I disagree with that problem. I actually think the problem is this.

ADAM GRANT: [00:32:37] I think it's, it's also interesting because if I, if I go with your. We advice here. And I write a statement of the problem. I quickly start to realize that there's a deeper problem at play here, which is yes. The problem is that some of us are tired and you know, others are not the deeper problem. I think it feels to me like the night owls, just, they unilaterally [00:33:01] implement their preferred solution because.
Yeah, we start our meetings when, when we're available and then we don't go to bed until they're done and they don't show any concern or respect for mental states of the morning people. So I guess then I could rewrite the problem statement and say, look, part of the problem is that some of us are exhausted, but the deeper problem is that there seems to be a status conflict here, which is you think you're in charge. And there are actually more by the way, morning people, than night owls. So this feels completely inverted. So am I expected to be comfortable stating the problem that way?

TIM GOLEN: [00:33:40] I, I think what you described is totally valid and how this oftentimes goes is that the problem that you start with might not actually be the problem that ends up being dealt with in the end and through this open communication process, that problem can be found out and it can be uncovered bird.

ADAM GRANT: [00:33:59] When I jumped to a solution, I haven't fully diagnosed the problem. Even if I could get the night owls to agree on a 10:00 PM bedtime, there's still an unresolved status conflict around them unilaterally overriding the morning people. I love this idea of a problem statement. It crystallizes the core issue at the heart of the fault line. [00:34:19] It allows you to walk down the ladder of inference to identify the root of a disagreement.

TIM GOLEN: [00:34:25] Once the problem has been defined, then you can move on to agreeing on the solution for it. And that's really how most of our conflict resolution happens at Expensify.

ADAM GRANT: [00:34:32] I think this approach has important implications for handling conflict. Leaders often say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” I get why they say that-- they want people to be constructive-- not to whine or complain. But if people can only speak up when they have a solution, you’ll never hear about the biggest problems-- which are too complex for one person to solve. And even if they do have a solution, it might be the wrong solution-- or [00:35:00] they might be solving the wrong problem.

By creating a space where people can share problem-solution statements publicly, Expensify opens up the conversation and makes it easier for everyone to identify the type of conflict before trying to solve it. It helps to prevent relationship conflict by focusing on the problem, not the people. And to prevent status conflict by making sure different perspectives are respected and considered. [00:35:27]

Remember the CEO's email that raise concerns among conservative employees? By posting his idea on the #WhatsNext channel, David identified a specific problem: He believed Trump was a threat to democracy and a solution: They should email their users to vote him out. The problem-solution statement allowed employees from across the political spectrum to focus on the task conflict.[00:35:50] For example, they decided that free and fair elections are one pillar of democracy and then examined the evidence around claims about voter fraud.

TIM GOLEN: [00:35:59] So we were able to use this channel to, you know, dive into the data and find out that. No voter fraud, like isn't really a real thing.

ADAM GRANT: [00:36:07] After extensive discussions, the organization agreed that David should send the email. Wherever you stand on politics, there’s something to be learned from Expensify’s process for having constructive conflict. But the process only works if you have a culture of respect.

TIM GOLEN: [00:36:24] We have developed a very candid way of speaking with each other. Like, we don't have egos, like we're able to have extremely difficult conversations and everybody can walk away from those conversations, understanding that they've felt heard.

ADAM GRANT: [00:36:38] Tim, you said something that surprised me just now you said we don't have egos as a psychologist. I think everyone has an ego. What do you mean by that?

TIM GOLEN: [00:36:45] I suppose it means, um, we don't let our egos get in the way of, of what we do at work. And that probably comes out through a lot of humility. Humility is one of the core values that we have at Expensify and that, that comes about in different ways. But, um, like one of the biggest ways is that, uh, we, as a company and inside the company, we don't want to agree to disagree.

ADAM GRANT: [00:37:16] You don’t have to agree to disagree. You just have to agree to disagree respectfully. I think the clearest sign of intellectual chemistry isn't agreeing with someone. It's enjoying your disagreements with them. Harmony isn’t the combination of identical sounds. It’s the pleasing arrangement of different tones, different voices, or different instruments. Creative tension can make beautiful music.In a culture that deals with conflict effectively, people aren’t afraid to bring their problems to the table. If you can agree on the problem, you have a better shot at finding a solution that works for everyone. And even if you don’t find that perfect solution, you’ve at least strengthened your ability to build consensus around the diagnosis of the problem. [00:38:00] Maybe I’ll bring my problem statement to the night owls.Or maybe they’ll listen to this episode before I work up the nerve to do it.

Next time on WorkLife ...

JOHN: If I intervene on something that's racist, it's not on my behalf or another one of my Black colleagues. It's because it's an incivility against the values that people say they share today…the presence of a Black person has never been required for racism to occur…

ADAM GRANT: It’s the first of two episodes on anti-racism and de-biasing individuals and organizations.[00:38:40]

WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O’Donnell, JoAnn DeLuna, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.

Special thanks to our sponsors: LinkedIn, Logitech, Morgan Stanley, SAP and Verizon.For their research, kudos to Chris Argyris and Peter Senge on the ladder of inference, Tal Eyal and colleagues on perspective-seeking, Etty Jehn and colleagues on conflict types, Sherry Thatcher and colleagues on fault lines, Drew Carton and Jonathon Cummings on subgroups, and Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay on solution aversion. And for more from Glennon Doyle, stay tuned for a bonus episode with her later this season.

ADAM GRANT: David, what does Expensify do?

DAVID BARRETT: Expensify does expense reports that don't suck. And that’s certainly true

ADAM GRANT: Given that the motto of our show is studying how to make work, not suck. The Idea of making expenses not suck, which are one of the suckiest parts of work definitely appeals to me.