Why Team Infighting is a Good Thing

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The audience never saw the fights, but I remember them vividly. As the producer of Seattle’s long-running (15 years!), legendary comedy TV show, Almost Live!, I saw the fights almost every week. They would happen in the editing room, at the writer’s table, in the rehearsal studio. Sometimes they’d be happening downstairs in the Almost Live! offices while the studio audience was being seated in the studio upstairs. They varied from mild to intense—and I loved them! As a leader, you should learn to love the fights as well.

The fights I’m talking about can be lumped under the general classification of “creative differences.” Comedy can be a very touchy, subjective thing. Details are important—sometimes ridiculously so. I remember one script writing session where we spent nearly a half hour arguing over which is the funnier number, 17 or 19. (We went with 17. The joke, whatever it was, got a laugh, but I still wonder if the laugh would have been bigger had we gone with 19.) There were several times in the editing room when a fierce fight would break out over whether an edit should be made on one frame or the next frame. Keep in mind that, in video editing, a frame is 1/30 of a second. Yes, these were heated, vociferous fights over 1/30 of a second. But sometimes in comedy 1/30 of a second means the difference between a big laugh and no laugh.

So why did I love these fights? Because it meant my team was passionate about the product. They were passionate enough to get angry—really angry—over 1/30 of a second. Wouldn’t you rather lead a team that’s so passionate about what they do that they’re willing to fight for it than a team that says, “Do it however you want. I don’t care. Whatever.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a half-hour fight about the relative merits of 17 versus 19 over “whatever” any day!

As a leader, you don’t want a “whatever” team.

Why are the songs of the Beatles so much better, generally speaking, than the solo songs of, say, Lennon or McCartney? It’s because the Beatles, as a team, were passionate about the product. If one of Lennon’s ideas wasn’t good, the other three would fight over it. Just like with Almost Live!, sometimes the fights were mild and sometimes they were intense. But they almost always resulted in a better product. When the Beatles split up, there was nobody willing to take on a passionate fight. Lennon did whatever he wanted to do, as did McCartney. And the results, by and large, show the difference.

Some leaders—weak leaders—see all fights as a bad thing. “Can’t we all just get along?” they plead. And I’ll admit that it’s nice when everybody gets along. It’s very pleasant. So congratulations—you’ve created a nice, pleasant team that doesn’t make waves, doesn’t rock the boat…and doesn’t make a difference. If your team never fights, they’re either not passionate about what they do, or they’re all in constant agreement. Neither of these is a good thing.

Yes, there are times when, as a leader, you have to step in and resolve the fight. At some point, somebody has to make the call. And there are some fights that are truly destructive (for example, when the fight gets personal). But when your team is fighting over the best way to do the work, it means they’re involved. They’re engaged. They’re passionate.

You gotta love that!


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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