When you work closely with someone, fights are inevitable. That’s one major lesson that Alexis Ohanian took away from the experience of co-founding Reddit with his college roommate Steve Huffman—now the company’s CEO—back in 2005. The pair had a falling-out, which, among other factors, drove Ohanian to leave Reddit in 2009.
Now Ohanian is back at Reddit after an 11-year hiatus, having repaired his broken friendship with Huffman. As Ohanian explains in a recent interview with First Round Review interview, their renewed partnership has convinced him to advocate for a unique management strategy: Before you start working with new colleagues, discuss how you’re going to fight.
Ohanian suggests that entrepreneurs, as well as employers, raise the question of how to handle conflict early on. He tells First Round, ”Whenever you’re choosing a co-founder or hiring people to lead big parts of your company or your vision, you have to make sure you can have hard conversations. You’re inevitably going to have a bunch of conversations that you would never ever have with a friend — and I think that a lot of new entrepreneurs don’t anticipate that.” He now encourages “every founding team I meet to seek an executive coach or some kind of outside mediator to help have the hard conversations sooner rather than later.”
Ohanian adds that this also is a crucial question to discuss during the hiring process. “Ask them how they’d respond to that during the interview phase,” he says. “How would they constructively approach a problem if you happened to disagree with them? How have they handled strong disagreements in the past? Were they able to see the other side’s point of view at all?” Sorting through these issues will help employers identify people who are able to handle disagreements in a mature way.
Once a new hire is on board, Ohanian suggests, “set the expectation that you will still respect and like them as a person regardless of how assertively you counter them down the road. It’s good to have this touchstone, and it helps to pump the brakes a bit before taking something personally, or allowing it to create a serious rift.”
There’s sound logic behind Ohanian’s idea. While workplace arguments can be uncomfortable and even downright terrifying, studies show that conflicts can actually improve team performance and innovation. The key is to know how to fight well, says Nick Tasler, organizational psychologist and author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Decision Making.
“The easiest way to be a rational thinker and effective problem-solver is to intentionally request input from someone who will likely bring you a conflicting opinion,” Tasler says. “That’s why the path to the best solution is almost always littered with the debris of conflict.” Without a range of different ideas, it’s nearly impossible to identify the root of a problem.
Many people are conflict-averse by nature, and feel they are hurting the team (or themselves) if they engage in conflict. But companies can help workers overcome individual habits by actively encouraging debate. “So simply telling people that conflict is not only okay here, but often expected, can give more conflict-comfortable people permission to engage, while also nudging more conflict-averse people outside their comfort zone,” Tasler says.
Not all conflict is healthy, nor should conflict be encouraged without professional training on how to respectfully and constructively engage. Some people are conflict-prone solely because they enjoy fighting and flinging sarcasm and insults. As Ohanian suggests, one can scan for aggressive types during interviews with specific questions regarding previous conflicts—as past behavior has been proven the best predictor of future behavior. Encouraging every employee to write a user manual describing their professional dispositions can also help managers navigate their employees’ preferred styles of conflict.
“If [aggressive] people are giving carte blanche and are never redirected toward healthier ways of handling conflict, they will ultimately kill the objective of fostering conflict in the organization,” says Tasler. This is because more conflict-averse people are likely to be every bit as smart and opinionated, but they’ll shut down in order to avoid getting into a mean-spirited or upsetting fight.
“When this happens, your team fails the primary objective of conflict,” he continues, “which is making sure the best idea rises to the top, not just the loudest voice.”