The surprising secret of happier, more productive organizations: conflict

All right, you can fight a little.
All right, you can fight a little.
Image: AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong
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Managers want organizations to run smoothly. They like to create harmony and stamp out conflict. But sometimes that can be a mistake. Conflict can be a sign that people are cooperating—that is, doing the hard work that makes a company better, more agile and more competitive.  So, managers may want to let conflict happen or even intensify it.

Some actual cases in point:

At a cell phone network where several engineering teams were failing to work together on a project, 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 a project. 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 a way that the engine had to be removed to replace the headlights. Costs skyrocketed. The remedy: 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.

Why cooperation matters

Cooperation matters because it is a necessary condition for effective teamwork and it matters more as the business environment becomes more complex. There are ever-increasing competitive pressures, regulatory requirements, and customers and other stakeholders with increasing numbers of demands. Too often, organizations respond to this complexity by getting complicated rather than by creating the conditions for cooperation. They add management layers, dedicated functions, processes and “best practices”—all in an attempt to control their people but which have the effect of deterring cooperation and making 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 by harnessing the energy and intelligence of their people. Autonomy and cooperation can be complementary. Individual autonomy harnesses people’s flexibility and agility; cooperation brings synergy so that everyone’s efforts are multiplied. But cooperation, while easy to talk about, is hard to accomplish.

Cooperation leads to anger… anger leads to results

When two people cooperate, they move along a continuum to a spot that is not ideal for either but that is more beneficial for the overall result. The adjustment comes at a personal cost—professional, emotional, reputational or financial. The cost is by no means lessened by the possibility of sharing the benefits. To cooperate, people need to come together, understand each other’s needs and produce a result that’s more than the sum of its parts. When you try to accomplish that, tensions can rise  and people’s emotions towards each other can intensify.

These are signs that people are adjusting—or trying to cooperate. But if the adjustment is one-sided, you can expect to see:

  • Dissatisfaction. When one person adjusts to the needs of others, but the others do not do so in return, the result is usually a situation of high stress for those bearing the cost of adjustment. 
  • Resentment. When a person or group avoids adjusting to the needs of others, and forces them to do the adjusting, that person or group is often the target of resentment.

Interpersonal relationships are strained as adjustments are made to work toward the end goal. This is the sign that real cooperation is happening. But as cooperation begins to produce results, happiness will increase as well.

The greater cause for concern is not emotion or strained relationships but rather indifference, which shows that a person or group neither makes adjustments nor forces others to do so. In other words, that person or group isn’t involved in cooperation.  Too much harmony can be dangerous if it leaves major issues buried and problems unsolved.

Emotions don’t always mean what you think they mean

All of this means that strong emotions in the workplace may not mean what you think they do.  Don’t assume you understand their meaning until you’ve examined the context in which people are doing their work, and have found out what they’re actually doing.

  • Tension between two groups might be a symptom of conflict so intense that it impedes working together. Alternatively, it might be a sign that people are doing the hard work of cooperation.
  • Good interpersonal relationships might be a sign that people feel that the costs of cooperation are worth it.  Alternatively, good relationships may be a sign that people are carefully avoiding cooperation in order to avoid straining relationships.

Conflict can be the first step toward a happier workplace

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. 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.

Excerpted and adapted from Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2014 The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. All rights reserved.