There's nothing wrong with you or your business that a little CONFLICT wouldn't cure

Several years ago I spent a week evaluating a rapidly growing advertising firm founded and controlled by a CEO--I'll call him Adam--and his wife. Adam believed that the workplace should provide a safe haven from strife. He was a veteran of Madison Avenue's dog-eat-dog ethos and was determined to never again tolerate an environment that fostered cutthroat, competitive behavior. He's among a new contingent of entrepreneurial dreamers who wish for nothing more than a workplace free of conflict.

Adam and his ilk are the newest incarnation of a well-established trend in management psychology that has turned consensus building into a religious movement. Over the past decade the concept of hierarchy has become dÉclassÉ . Management gurus have implored us to work in collaborative teams. But Adam would take that argument even further and insist that a system must be purged of conflict before consensus can be built among employees--and only then, he'd say, will a smooth information exchange follow.

So our man Adam wanted to handle conflict resolution in his business personally. He knew his 100 employees' names and a snippet of personal data about each of them. He'd spend roughly an hour a day kibitzing with them about how they liked the company and their jobs. And he engaged in a quirky ritual in which he challenged them to recite the "12 guiding principles" he'd written as his ad agency's mission statement. On more than one occasion I saw him hand any employee who could recite all 12 principles a $100 gift certificate.

You'd think such rewards would have a positive effect. And you'd also think the fact that the business was growing profitably enough for Adam to pay excellent salaries would go down well with employees. But turnover was rampant. The company spent twice the industry average on search-firm fees and even more on training replacement personnel.

Had I thought more critically about what I saw when I walked the halls of Adam's company, I might have realized that the total absence of overt conflict was a dangerous sign, not a desirable one. Why were there no energized envelope-pushers eager to advance their careers by identifying the ad world's version of the next big thing? Adam's excursions into his empire squelched not only the noxious conflict that he abhorred but honest and critical feedback as well.

Most CEOs unconsciously elicit the feedback they want to hear by rewarding employees for adhering to--and parroting back--the corporate ethos they've created. As one of Adam's disgruntled employees told me: "All the nonconformists here know they're on borrowed time. The big guy will never get presented with a new idea or a contradiction, because it will sound like you're critical of him or, worse yet, disloyal."

From a psychological perspective, the outward harmony that existed at Adam's firm was a manifestation of compliance--people going along to get along. Compliant people act in accordance with rules they don't necessarily believe in. But as reflected by the turnover rate at Adam's firm, compliant employees are not necessarily what's best for the health of an organization in the long run.

People who feel a commitment to an idea, an ideal, or a principle do more than walk the walk and talk the talk. They proselytize on behalf of the beliefs they're committed to. People with a sense of commitment find it difficult to sustain rule-governed behavior that conflicts with their beliefs. The motto of the person committed to his or her personal self-development and career is likely to be "Unless it feels right, I won't do it." If you value workers who pursue excellence, you want folks like that in your business. Any shrink will tell you that the pursuit of excellence is, at bottom, the pursuit of self-esteem, and self-esteem can derive only from activities that give you a good feeling about yourself.

Critical or conflictual feedback gets a bum rap from most management gurus because it's typically linked to the diatribes of heartless, insecure SOBs. But conflictual feedback--finding out that others hold views of what is right or best that somehow conflict with yours--will send a healthy person back to the drawing board. That's where reconsideration, reformulation, and re learning take place. In short, conflictual feedback, if used constructively, can help you perform better.

So how can CEOs differentiate "good" conflict from "bad"? Well, for one thing, the person who engages in destructive conflict seeks not the good of the business but a valuable resource or status for himself or herself. In contrast, the person whose conflicts are waged for the betterment of the business without regard for personal concerns is exhibiting the type of healthful conflict you should try to foster.

If you're not looking for ways to promote healthful conflict between people of different backgrounds who cannot possibly see the world the same way, don't be surprised if anarchy ensues or if the best and the brightest abandon you. The speed with which new ideas reach the marketplace today demands that you be receptive to perspectives that are in conflict with the status quo. Getting people to believe that you want to promote constructive conflict is not easy, but here are steps you can take to encourage it:

1. Galvanize your creative, achievement-oriented employees.

Do what Motorola does, and give employees who have been with the company for several years wide latitude in voicing concerns. Motorola's take is that no form of progress is possible without the guarantee of unrestricted debate among conflicting parties. Unless your company protects from retaliation those who hold viewpoints at variance with the status quo, it's virtually certain such employees will be intimidated into complying with majority rule or will seek work elsewhere.

2. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.

Brainstorming is the business world's version of free association, as it's used in therapy, except that brainstorming is fun. Brainstorming encourages the expression of any ideas that come to mind, in an environment that's 100% nurturing. In therapy, the analyst fosters free association by assuming a nonjudgmental air. CEOs can--and should--do that, too.

3. Reinforce radical ideas, not ritual.

Of all the things wrong with Adam's conflict-thwarting perspective, quite possibly the most damaging was his tendency to reward employees for pledging allegiance to the firm. How can we know we like something if we're coerced into doing it simply because we've been conditioned to follow orders? When people voluntarily advance a perspective, advocate a policy, or endorse an issue, you know they are committed to it and will fight for it.

If all else fails, remember the advice of Mark Twain: "It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races."

Dr. Steven Berglas is a management consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.