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The Joy of Conflict

The impulse is to seek workplace consensus. But sometimes it's better to fight.
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When it comes to U.S. foreign policy these days, it's all about the Bush Doctrine—a fundamental refusal to shrink from conflict. But in the world of business, it's quite the opposite. You might say it's all about the Rodney King Doctrine: Can't we all just get along?

In the workplace, our primary impulse is to turn down the tension thermostat. We paper over real and meaningful disputes in an anxious rush to create consensus—even if that consensus is largely artificial. Simply put, we are uncomfortable with conflict, perhaps because we are trained from pre-K to make nice.

I assumed this was just part of doing business—until I met Bob Taraschi, founder of Milestone Consulting, a firm in Dedham, Mass. All consultants make promises, but Taraschi's struck me as particularly compelling. He promises the miracle of "conflict transformation.

This is different from conflict management, which gives people tools to deal with their anger. Taraschi is aiming at a much deeper place. For example, he was brought into an Internet company where the CEO was in a seemingly intractable struggle with her Web development team. The CEO was demanding outstanding work and expected her developers to take ownership of their projects and work independently. But her team members felt she was unwilling to cede real authority and that nothing they presented was good enough. (Sound familiar? It does to me.)

The typical conflict-management guru might have helped the company come up with a new set of rules to govern workplace behavior. Taraschi did something different: He helped the CEO see that her conflict came from a fear that if she actually granted her team independence, some of her own importance would fade. It was a powerful insight. By recognizing the loss that comes from ceding autonomy, the CEO was able to transform conflict into interdependence.

It's nice to pretend that we work in a no-conflict zone. But that's a myth—an unhealthy, even disastrous, one. Unresolved conflict stirs up anxiety, fear, and frustration. Elaborate defense mechanisms arise, which hamper an organization's ability to operate effectively. A classic example is the space shuttle Challenger and its infamous O-rings. Problems with the seals were identified four years before the first shuttle flight but disregarded by NASA, notes Howard Schwartz in his book Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay. He calls the episode "perhaps the most tragic example of the exportation of conflict.

Think about the way conflict gets exported in your business. Is it considered a "good meeting when everyone agrees? That's the worst. I've been in dozens of "good meetings at which the important issues weren't challenged—until after the meeting officially ended. I am guilty of the same thing. A few years ago, for example, I brought a minority partner into the company, elevating him over a long-term and valuable senior exec. This created no end of stress and conflict, which I was aware of but chose to ignore, believing it would work itself out. It didn't. My long-term colleague felt betrayed, and while his dedication didn't wane, I now realize that he spent unproductive time trying to prove himself, establish zones of independence, and restore his battered sense of significance.

In retrospect, I should have set clearer lines of accountability. But more important, I wish I had confronted the problem directly, throwing myself into the middle of the dispute rather than avoiding it. As Taraschi points out, the journey of the hero is always through conflict. If I had focused on the company's struggle—and the two executives' roles in it—both might have found a heroic path. But most companies prefer to tell their stories in terms of how they go around conflict rather than through it. More truth-telling and less myth will enable people to make the trip.

Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2005




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