Want to boost creativity in you workplace? Start some fights.
Years ago, I worked for a fellow who was fond of stirring up resentments between people as a way of demonstrating his personal power. The result was a morbidly fascinating workplace, in which ferocious battles erupted over the tiniest things. My co-workers and I came to work each day armed for combat, and while this made for a stressful atmosphere, it also generated a certain electricity that helped us create a lively publication.
I’m not sure I’d like to return to those days of Sturm und Drang, but according to Reinhard K. Sprenger, my annoying boss was onto something. Sprenger, writing in the German alternative magazine on economic life, Brand Eins (January 2004), argues that a little conflict can go a long way to shaping a more vital and energetic organization. “If we truly want to unleash entrepreneurial energy,” Sprenger writes, “we should not conceal conflicts, but we should expose them, confront them, and manage them through intelligent strategies and courses of action.”
Sprenger, a management consultant to several major German companies, believes harmony breeds conformism and encourages the sort of politeness that stifles healthy debate. Good manners are not productive even when they’re done in the service of maintaining an illusory sense of collaboration. Conflict, on the other hand, is the “real social cement” of a company, because dealing with personality struggles on a regular basis promotes problem-solving and innovative thinking at all levels of an organization.
Conflict is so valuable, in fact, that Sprenger advises managers to stimulate it as a way of pushing a company through periods of paralysis or distress. Companies like the noted London advertising firm St. Luke’s (which convenes weekly meetings in which everyone is expected to tell everybody else exactly what they think of each other’s performance) have used this approach to thrive in an increasingly competitive market. Despite the discord that can arise from such an approach (St. Luke’s has a psychologist available to help folks weather the storm), turnover at the firm is surprisingly low.
“A truly competitive business is by definition an organized debate between conflicting interests,” Sprenger explains. “This takes leadership. A company that is learning and consequently viable does not settle for conciliatory efforts but seeks a constructive way of handling perpetual discord.”
And while that may sound stressful, over the long-term it could make a manager’s job easier. Confrontational behavior, after all, is staged to produce a reaction and to gain an advantage. To resolve the conflict—or even to explore ways to resolve it—requires that the disputing parties change something about how they approach their job. Such changes can often produce unforeseen rewards.
Mutual understanding, of course, does not always occur. Indeed, leaders discover many conflicts can’t be managed in a way that results in constructive outcomes. In those cases, Sprenger suggests that managers practice a little “stoic neutrality,” retreating from the battle and allowing everyone else to do so, as well. Or, when things really get out of hand, a manager can simply demand “appropriate conduct” from his or her charges and back it up with some well-placed threats.
But this is not the creative response Sprenger prefers. He’d rather see people get in the ring and slug it out until there are some constructive results. Having been in there a time or two myself, I understand the appeal—and power—of a good old office slugfest. Just don’t forget to bring your gloves.