Conflict and the New Workplace

Thanks to Greg Melia for his excellent comments on my post about Good and Bad conflict. I continue to see people writing about it this way, and I’m beginning to think I need to start writing something about this (oh no! Not another book!). The most recent example is from a great book by Robert Sutton, called (unfortunately) The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. He starts off by making the same distinction others make: basically, it’s a good thing to have conflict with people over ideas, but it is bad when conflict gets into personal or relationship issues. He quoted someone in the book who was describing a healthy organization where “impugning a man’s thinking was acceptable, but never his character.” Sutton adds, however, an excellent point that captures much of what I’ve been trying to say:

Beware, however, that all these pretty stories and sanitized research findings mask how messy and difficult it can be to fight with other people over ideas without acting like an asshole. I struggle with this challenge constantly…. [W]hen Jeff [Pfeffer, friend and colleague,] criticizes one of my ideas (which happens several hundred times a year), my first reaction is often “that asshole,” and I have to take a moment, calm down, and then respond to his logic and facts.

The line between relationship conflict and task conflict is not as stark as people make it out to be. And as brain research has shown, those emotional, relationship pieces often travel faster than your logic. Taking that moment to calm down and then respond is evidence of Sutton’s emotional intelligence.

More importantly, however, it demonstrates (to me at least) that the traditional rules of the game in organizations when it comes to interpersonal dynamics are fast becoming obsolete. Gone are the days where being professional meant segregating your emotional brain from your rational brain. Gone are the days where you could just “muddle through” conflict situations. Gone are the days when you can solve problems with new policies (alone).


  1. 02.05.2007 at 12:25 pm

    “The line between relationship conflict and task conflict is not as stark as people make it out to be.”–Great point.
    That line is really a moving line. A comment that you would take as task conflict on one day could rub you completely wrong and create relationship conflict on another day, when your blood sugar is low/you’re facing a huge deadline/you’re coming down with a cold/etc.
    One critical way to avoid such situations is to develop as much trust as possible within the team. As much as people dread stereotypical team-building exercises (trust falls!), the fact is that a team that has deep trust can overcome those momentary blood-sugar blips a lot better than a team that already teeters on the edge of distrust and dislike for one another.

  2. 03.05.2007 at 5:27 am

    Yeah, I get a lot of flack as a consultant about trust falls, and for the record, I’ve never used them with a client! The best way to build trust is to actually solve real problems on the team in real time. You’re right–trust is a huge resource for teams as they hit bumps in the road. It’s a critical factor in whether or not teams will actually surface and deal with their conflict, because doing so involves exposing some vulnerability, and when there is no trust, there will be no vulnerability.