I’m deep into writing my new book and I’ve had an epiphany: Organizations are built to require conflict while employees are built to avoid it. I see this impact of this problem every day, but it took me 20 years to name it. Now it’s so clear. We have set up a fundamental tension between organizational science and human psychology. No wonder there is so much dysfunction.
What do I mean by, “organizations are built to create conflict?” Think about the major aspects of an organization. I’ll use Jay Galbraith’s Star Model as a guide. Organizations can be thought of in five areas; strategy, structure, processes and laterals, rewards, and HR systems. At least four of these levers of organizational science set us up to be in conflict with one another. I’ll take each in turn.
Start with strategy. Everything about strategy requires conflict. You need to decide which external trends to attend to and which to ignore. How important are the economic signals? Should we listen to customer needs or ignore them (a la Steve Jobs)? Which technology advances will take hold, and which will fall to the wayside? Everyone at the strategy table will have different perspectives on what matters most. They probably even disagree about how much attention should be paid to external trends in the first place. Some will create risk by wanting to skip over this step, others will bog the team down trying to know everything.
If you survive the fight about which trends to build your strategy upon, you can proceed to your SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. You need to determine which of the trends create opportunities and which create threats. On the other side of the SWOT, you have to line up your strengths and weaknesses against those opportunities and threats. In assessing your weaknesses, you’re counting on people to be honest and vulnerable and, failing that, you’re depending on others to point out where the emperors have no clothes. That’s putting a lot of faith in people’s willingness to have conflict.
Then it gets really hard. How do you allocate scarce resources optimally to create value and competitive advantage? Which initiative is more important? What comes first? What can wait? Strategic planning is not only a fight among different priorities, but a fight between those who actually believe in prioritizing and those who want to do everything.
Strategy is a process of making cascading decisions and trade-offs. That is, a process of resolving successive conflicts.
With strategy in hand, you build the structure, which organizes work into subsets based on product lines, geographies, customer segments, etc. Organizational science knows that it’s essential to create homogeneous groups to increase efficiency, build capability, and manage capacity. But by grouping people into departments and divisions, we’re creating in-groups and out-groups. If there’s one thing we know from psychology, it’s that we cling tightly to our tribes and become biased against those who don’t belong. Operations becomes the pariah to sales (and vice versa). Corporate functions are evil, unnecessary overhead to the lines of business, while they see the lines of business as rogues willing to do anything to boost the numbers.
Traditional structures create plenty of conflict, but matrix structures are even more challenging. In a matrix structure, you assign people to two groups. This heightens the strain by forcing people to prioritize and trade-off between two groups they are supposed to be loyal to. Now the individual is at the center of a tug-of-war among groups that are supposed to be allies. Everything about building organizational structures sets up conflict.
Processes and Laterals
Once the structure has created in-groups and out-groups, organizational processes smash the conflicting sides together in what Galbraith calls “lateral processes.” In practice, lateral processes are almost always brought to life in cross-functional teams. These teams, councils, and committees become the primary way of managing workflow such as new product development, customer account management, or order fulfillment.
You could argue that the people on a cross-functional team all have the same goal and should, therefore, be able to work without conflict, but that ignores the pressures coming from their own departments. It’s easy to lose sight of the shared goal when your vested interest is in only one small aspect. Sales wants the wins on the board as soon as possible. Operations wants to spread the wins out to optimize production. We’re back to conflict.
We shouldn’t be surprised. This conflict in the laterals is set up from the start by the measurement and reward strategies in most organizations. Organizational science dictates that rewards should be tied to things you have control over. Adhering to the science, sales people are measured on selling and operations people are measured on operating. Most organizations do include some integrated measures, but the percentages are so small and the individual’s ability to impact them so weak that they do little to drive behavior. The conflict is teed up again.
The way organizations are built requires that we have productive conflict almost continually. Strategy forces us to make calls about how to allocate scarce resources. Structure sorts us into groups and rewards systems primarily measure our ability to advance our group’s cause. Laterals require us to carry our groups’ banners into cross-functional teams, where we advocate for our interests and defend against those who work in opposition to our goals. Remember, none of these conflicts is dysfunctional. They are exactly what is prescribed in healthy, high performing organizations.
There’s only one problem. Humans are built to avoid conflict. We have been wired by evolution to avoid offense for fear of becoming unsafe. (After all, if we picked the wrong fight, we got shoved out of the cave into the jaws of the saber tooth tiger). We were born disliking conflict and then raised by parents and teachers and coaches who saw conflict as the opposite of good manners. That didn’t help. When we started our first jobs, we might have tried to sprinkle in a little dissension, but most bosses preferred for us to just go along to get along. By the time we’re fully formed organizational citizens, we’ve slipped from being conflict averse to being fully conflict avoidant.
Now we have a great problem. We work in organizations that depend on conflict to function optimally. We lack the systems and processes to institutionalize productive conflict and so, the burden of conflict falls on us as individuals. The ones who feel with every fiber of our beings that conflict is wrong and dangerous and avoidable. That’s the problem I will address in my new book. I can’t wait to share the solution.
What is your reaction to this idea? Leave a comment so we can keep the conversation going.