Managers Want a Harmonious Organization But That Can Be a Mistake -- Where There's Conflict, There Can Also Be Better Performance and a Happier Workforce

Sometimes Harmony Hides Problems; Conflict Can Bring Issues to the Surface and Solve Them; Effective Managers Even Intensify Conflict, Say the Authors of Six Simple Rules, a New Book From The Boston Consulting Group

Marketwired

BOSTON, MA--(Marketwired - May 20, 2014) - Managers want organizations to run smoothly. They like to create harmony and stamp out conflict. Sometimes that's a mistake. Conflict can be a sign that people are doing the hard cooperative work that makes a company better, more agile and more competitive. So, managers may want to let conflict happen or even intensify it.

In fact, conflict can also make people happier -- while more harmony can make them miserable, according to Six Simple Rules -- How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2014), a new book by Boston Consulting Group partners Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman.

Conflict is often the natural result of cooperation, say Morieux and Tollman, and cooperation is essential, if organizations are to respond effectively to the demands of an increasingly complex business world.

"The business environment is becoming more complex -- and organizations respond by getting complicated," Morieux says. "They add management layers, dedicated functions, processes and 'best practices' -- all of which make the organization clumsy and slow to respond. What's needed is more autonomy and cooperation -- qualities that make companies more agile, flexible, responsive and competitive.

"Too much harmony can be dangerous -- if it leaves major issues buried and problems unsolved," Tollman adds.

Cooperation is easy to talk about but hard to do. "The word 'cooperation' means that many different people and units are working together to produce a single specific result," Morieux explains. "To do that, they need to put their individual interests aside.

"By contrast, it's easy to collaborate and coordinate -- those things, which management loves to talk about, are about process," Tollman says. "To cooperate, people need to come together, understand each other's needs, and produce a piece of work that's more than the sum of its parts. When you try to accomplish that, tensions rise and people can get angry with each other."

The book includes many examples of companies that recognized -- or even intensified -- conflict as a way to get to better performance:

  • 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 complex, overlapping deadlines and requirements for 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.

  • In an industrial company where purchasing strategists couldn't get along with the buyers on a plan to reduce supply costs -- while business units went off on their own to do their own buying -- the company forced everyone together. It created a single set of objectives for the strategists and the buyers, while slashing the budgets for the business units, which then had no choice but to work with the buyers and strategists. A "community of practice" came together -- and purchasing costs fell.

  • A major vehicle manufacturer'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.

Carefully encouraging or even promoting conflict -- the right kind of conflict -- is at the heart of several of the book's "six simple rules." The authors argue that managers need to go beyond the traditional management toolkit and other abstract management approaches, and instead embrace "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," Tollman says. "Find out what your people are really doing in the organization; remember that whatever they are doing is rational -- for example, they are trying to protect their jobs or avoid punishment -- then give them rational reasons for doing what you need."

One of the rewards of more cooperation -- and sometimes conflict -- is that people are happier. "In a clumsy, slow-moving organization, people become frustrated and disengaged, because their work has no impact," Tollman says. "Ironically, when you let conflict happen and sometimes encourage it, people get angry and fight with each other -- and that makes them happier, because in the end they did difficult, important work that made a difference."

For more information, or to schedule an interview with Yves Morieux or Peter Tollman, contact Frank Lentini, Sommerfield Communications at +1 (212) 255-8386 / Lentini@sommerfield.com.

About the Authors

Yves Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington, DC office of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He is a BCG Fellow and director of the BCG Institute for Organization.

Peter Tollman is a senior partner in BCG's Boston office. He leads BCG's People & Organization practice in North America.

About The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 81 offices in 45 countries. For more information, please visit bcg.com.

Contact:

Frank Lentini
Sommerfield Communications, Inc.
(212) 255-8386
lentini@sommerfield.com
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