Harmony At Work Can Result In Mediocrity—So Shake Things Up

Conflict resolution isn't about calming everyone down—it's about addressing problems head on.

Probably one of the biggest mistakes leaders make at work is managing for harmony. When confronted with personnel conflicts, mistakes in judgment, differences of opinion or straight on failure, too often we try to manage the situation by bringing about agreement, order and "peacefulness." At first glance that seems to be appropriate—even obvious. Who wouldn't want some calmness instead of frustration and agreement instead of discord? But more often than not, what is really needed when managing workplace conflict is courage, not harmony.

Managerial Courage
In his defining book Managerial Courage, Harvey Hornstein, PhD. concluded in his research that seeking harmony in organizations, while worthy at times, often is a primary killer of innovation, initiative, and creativity:

"What often emerges under the pressure to get along, be nice and work and play well together is an uncontroversial package of rules about how to act and what to think, distinguished only by their blandness . . . Courageous initiatives frequently spark conflict, disrupting organizational harmony. Such conflict is one of the principal organizational benefits of managerial courage. When properly managed, conflict focuses choices, aids commitment, elevates thinking and sharpens issues. Productive conflict, by continually juxtaposing organizational options, can be an enormous aid to organizational growth and progress."*

In short, leading with courage is about respecting and engaging the intelligent edge of conflict rather than permitting harmony to dull our creative thinking and blind our insight.

Ironically, avoiding conflict can produce a harmony of sorts, where we feel successful as long as we are not inconvenienced and everyone behaves themselves. Such harmony can lull us asleep as leaders where we become increasingly willing to ignore what needs our attention, avoid what needs to be said and discourage what needs encouraging. And the business results— mediocrity.

Respecting Conflict versus Tolerating Mediocrity
I once had a consulting assignment with a newly hired CEO of a mid-sized media business whose team of production, marketing, and editorial staff were constantly at odds about everything from book cover design to publicity strategy to production deadlines. Complaining had become the established method of communicating, emotional toxicity was commonplace and insisting that people "get along" was the leadership mantra. And not surprisingly, the CEO had inherited a product line that was more mediocre than distinctive.

But the CEO was smart enough to know that the tension among her staff was in fact healthy at its core, and that past management's emphasis on harmony had dulled the team's creative edge. So, rather than insisting that we all "get along" the new CEO demanded socially intelligent give and take; rather than "keeping the peace," she led respectful, but at times heated, debates over marketing strategy; rather than making sure people were "happy," she had staff openly wrangle over web and ad designs. Rather than settle for mediocre harmony, she had the courage to embrace conflict, make clear demands and, not surprisingly, some toxic voices were invited to leave.

Promoting Fearless Harmony
When, like our media CEO, we are courageous enough to skillfully engage workplace conflict, we discover how to promote a different kind of harmony at work—a fearless harmony that fosters delight and passion within our enterprise. Well beyond the mediocrity of mere comfort, fearless harmony is about agility, balance, and clarity—like tasting a finely balanced wine, making a 20-foot putt or launching a new product flawlessly. Delighting in such accomplished poise demands courage—that we engage work's paradoxes and conflicts fearlessly not as good boys and good girls—that we attend to what needs our attention, speak up skillfully when we need to be heard and encourage what is healthy and inspiring. Because, in the end, leading courageously is not about being free from conflict, but about being free to engage our work fearlessly.

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—Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work, worked on Wall Street and in the publishing industry for over two decades, holding executive positions at Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. Founding director of AAW Associates, Carroll consults with major corporations on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. He is a longtime student of Buddhist meditation and an authorized teacher in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. Carroll has taught mindfulness meditation at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia University, Kripalu, and the Cape Cod Institute.

For more information please visit http://www.awakeatwork.net and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Jef Harris]

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  • thisisreylo

    "...leading courageously is not about being free from conflict, but about being free to engage our work fearlessly."

    This is the point for me. Do I like conflict? Not at all and I'm a bit suspect of anyone who does enjoy it. But I don't fear it. 

    There is a difference between a healthy debate of ideas between passionate people and fighting for fighting's sake or fighting to assert superiority not because the best idea wins but because I want to have a positional advantage over everyone else. The goal of the conflict is what drives me to embrace or reject it.

  • Alan Arnett

    Reylo - you are spot on in your distinction.  There is a model of climate in organisations I like which, amongst 9 dimensions, differentiates between what it calls 'debate', defined as tension between ideas, and 'conflict', which it defines as tension between individuals.  Courage in this sense is not just the courage to challenge other people's ideas, but also the courage to let go of your original thinking.

  • rleutwyler

    I love this message, Michael.

    "Fearless harmony" is needed throughout organizations to ensure healthy debate and improved outcomes.  One place it regularly falls down is when the conflict is with someone in a leadership position.  

    I have noticed that even when people feel comfortable challenging peers they often don't feel comfortable challenging a boss or someone even higher in the organization.  I have tremendous respect for team members who are willing to challenge something they believe is wrong (or could just be better) - regardless of who the conflict will be with.

  • Sparkle Magic

    You have to be careful because some terrible bosses are threatened by intelligent and thoughtful feedback and will find it a reason to "off" you.