The one with the good fight

Opposites attract, right?

Well as far as magnets go, yes, but when it comes to organisations it doesn’t always seem to hold. I’ve just finished reading an interesting post from Alison Chisnell, which is well worth a read on why organisations hire for compatibility rather than capability and it’s the following line that provoked this post:

“In my view, organisations and senior management teams don’t have to be harmonious or devoid of conflict and issues to be effective”

I couldn’t agree with Alison more. In fact I personally think the best organisations are rife with conflict but the right kind of conflict.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the gender pay gap and women in senior roles. If you care to read it, it’s linked here but one of the articles cited there said this:

“Organisations benefit from “feminine leadership” with the challenge facing organisations the need for competitiveness, aggression and task orientation (what could be considered male traits) are seen as less valuable than good communication, coaching, being intuitive, flexible and more people orientated in general (stereotypically female characteristics).” (Powell et al, 2002)

It seems to me that some conflict in the work place is about land grabbing, jostling for position, ego, politics and the type of win/lose behaviour that leaves the business fighting itself rather than focussing its energies on resolving issues and improving its position versus the competition.

Positive constructive conflict is good. It takes two (or more) points of view and challenges them to scrutiny to find the best route forward for the business but the focus is on best for the business not best for the individual. Some of the people I have respected most in my career are those who are secure enough in themselves to come out the other side and say “I was wrong, your way is better”.

I once worked with a very strong minded Head of Operations and we would fight like cat and dog in the meeting but once we’d got to agreement we’d walk out of the room, one would buy the other a coffee and get on with our day. It wasn’t personal, it was business. We were MEANT to have different points of view, we saw the world very differently and it was in the conflict between those two views that we got to some great outcomes for the business.

Whether it’s having more feminine characteristics or indeed females in the organisation, improving individual self awareness, giving people confidence to admit they can be wrong or the business being focussed on not indulging in political behaviour I’m not sure. It seems to me the more organisations can fight the good fight and move on to improving the better they will be for it.

A coach once said to me, “you don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree”. He got his bill paid without question but I’m still working on it….


Powell, G.N., Butterfield, D.A., Parent, J.D., (2002) “Gender and Managerial Stereotypes: Have the Times Changed?” Journal of Management, 28(2)



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4 responses to “The one with the good fight

  1. “you dont have to be disagreeable to disagree”. Spot on. A great post and I totally concur with your views. One thing I would say though is that we should be careful of stereotypes. I have obviously not done the research to the extent quoted here, but as someone who has spent extended periods of time in both male and female led environments, it is my experience that the behavioural characteristics mentioned above are not gender specific. I have seen both in each environment.

    For me it comes back to the fundamental culture – whats allowed/encouraged. What behaviours are tolerated/accepted/embedded. I would also add that my observation is that behaviours mentioned “good communication, coaching, being intuitive, flexible and more people orientated in general” are more prevalent in environments that are more open, trusting and peer to peer.

    But thats only my experience!

    • Gareth, thanks for the comment.

      I think it’s interesting firstly that the researchers took the time to say ‘stereotypically female characteristics’ and you are right in that it isn’t all about gender but it’s an argument that’s made for women on boards.

      Someone made a comment to me recently about a senior leader in an organisation who happened to be a woman and said “What’s great is she’s got to that level and not lost sight of the fact she’s a woman”. He meant it as a positive. Have the nature of organisations pushed everyone to adopt more ‘stereotypically’ masculine traits?

  2. I agree.

    I once helped an organisation who had carried the idea “we get on with each other” so far that all “disagreement” was repressed. So people would announce initiatives that no-one disagreed with nor implemented and no-one protested about the non-implementation.

    I’ve worked extensively with conflict mediation in organisations. I found that nearly all conflicts were based on misunderstanding what the other person said (not even what they meant, often because they stopped listening). Of the balance of conflicts most began with people thinking that the other person had agreed when they had not.

    Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten how to compete nicely and well and thus how to integrate cooperating and competing. Most who don’t compete well, take it far too seriously and personally. They confuse themselves with their ideas and other people with their ideas. It takes plenty of practice to have the kind of healthy dialectic dialogue that integrates different positions to grow a greater shared position.

    One psychologist (who?) noted that it is vital to distinguish between conflict about issues and interpersonal conflict, but it is a one way street that when conflict has moved from between views about issues to feelings about people, it very rarely recovers.

    And finally, another piece of research showed that all (every single one) conflicts between partners began either from one feeling that the other was trying to control them, or that the other was not listening to them.

    Interesting stuff, unnecessary or badly handled conflict,

  3. Great post Rob – it’s funny how many people don’t get this thinking though… They chose the path of “interpersonal conflict” over the path of “conflict about issues”. I think there’s something here about knowing the right answer (which our education system has traditionally fostered) rather than seeking the right answer which is how we can work at our best. The adage “wisdom is not knowledge” springs to mind…

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