What could be better than a harmonious, peaceful workplace?
How about a workplace that has its share of conflict?
That may sound completely wrong and like a recipe for disaster: The idea that conflict might be helpful or productive runs counter to much that we’ve been taught. What was one of the most important lessons you learned in kindergarten? That it was important to play well with others.
Certainly, as a leader you want your organization to run smoothly. But a conflict-free organization frequently underperforms. A harmonious workplace might be one where everyone gets along, but it is also likely to be one where important issues are buried and problems are left unsolved.
Conflict, on the other hand, is often a sign that people are doing the hard cooperative work that makes a company better, more agile, and more competitive. Conflict can also make your people happier—while more harmony can actually make them miserable.
So if there’s conflict in your business, you might want to let it happen—or even in some cases intensify it.
Conflict results naturally from cooperation, and cooperation is essential to organizations responding effectively to the demands of an increasingly complex business world.
Many organizations react to complexity—customer demands, competitive pressures, regulatory restrictions—by getting complicated. They add management layers, dedicated functions, processes, and "best practices," all of which can make the organization clumsy and slow to respond.
What’s needed instead is more autonomy and cooperation—workers using their judgment and intelligence to solve problems together and improve overall results. Autonomy and cooperation, rather than processes and scorecards, make companies more agile, flexible, responsive, and competitive.
And here’s where conflict comes into play: It’s a key ingredient for cooperation. Cooperation is easy to talk about but hard to do. It means that many different people and units are working together to produce a single specific result. To do that, people need to come together, understand each other’s needs, confront solutions, and create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Cooperating requires tradeoffs across individuals' goals to the benefit of the team. When you try to accomplish that, tensions rise and people can get angry at each other.
In a cellular phone network where several engineering teams were in conflict, the company put them together—and put the most disliked group in charge—so that they could argue about overlapping deadlines and requirements to putting an overall project schedule in place. This forced all the teams to think about each other’s conditions and adjust to each other. The project smoothed out, and delivery time improved.
A major vehicle maker’s products were famously hard to repair. For example, the wiring was arranged in such a way that to replace the headlights, the engine had to be removed. As a result, costs skyrocketed. The company forced the engineers to work in the service department—where they had to confront angry technicians and angry customers and understand the consequences of their engineering decisions.
At an industrial company, purchasing strategists couldn’t get along with company buyers on a plan to reduce supply costs. As a symptom, business units were going off on their own to do their own buying. The company responded by forcing everyone together. It created a single set of objectives for the strategists and the buyers, and slashed the budgets for the business units. They then had no choice but to work with the buyers and strategists. A community of practice came together—and purchasing costs fell.
We’re not arguing for conflict for its own sake. Some conflict can be purely destructive. But the right kind of confrontation grows out of cooperation and signals that cooperative work is happening.
One of the rewards of more cooperation—and hence conflict—is that people are happier. In a clumsy, slow-moving organization, people become frustrated and disengaged because their work has no impact. Ironically, when you let conflict happen and sometimes encourage it, people get angry and confront each other, and that, instead of convivial avoidance of the tough issues that would strain their relationships, makes them happier because in the end they did difficult, important work that was meaningful and made a difference.
Encouraging conflict is at the heart of what we call smart simplicity, a set of principles designed to make people more autonomous, cooperative and able to solve problems, so that organizations become more competitive.
The basic approach of smart simplicity comes down to this: Find out what your people are really doing in the organization; remember that whatever they are doing is rational in their context (for example, they are trying to protect their jobs or avoid punishment), and then give them rational reasons for doing what you need. What they do is 100% aligned with the context you have created but that you may fail to understand.
If your goal is a happy, productive, agile, responsive organization, all we are saying is, give conflict a chance.
—Yves Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington, DC office of The Boston Consulting Group. He is a BCG Fellow and director of the BCG Institute for Organization.
—Peter Tollman is a senior partner in the firm’s Boston office. He leads BCG's People & Organization practice in North America.