Category Archives: positive conflict?

Jerry Seinfeld’s “Great” Speech

Jerry is very famous and rich. He can do and say whatever he wants. And so when he won a Clio, he gave a “truth” speech to the advertising industry . Here it is.

Notice how it generates conflict — with everyone. Is it useful? Well, I think there is a problem. The problem is not that the speech lacks cleverness. But it is mean hearted and gives no way for listeners to go beyond what he is saying. It is therefore moralistic rather than productive.

It falls into that category of great speeches that never should have been made.


Crowdsourcing Creativity?

I saw this phrase on a Wold Economic Forum agenda . It is a pretty interesting post and I encourage you to read it. The main point is to attack “corporatism”. You might ask, “what’s that?” Good question.

I am still not sure. But at least it includes the idea that large institutions should be protected rather than challenged. This is a pretty interesting dynamic. Surely we sometimes need to “protect” things. And sometimes we need to “challenge” things.

What is the balance?`I do agree with one point — the balance is NOT to avoid conflict. It is NOT to pursue an “all quiet on the western front” attitude. Conflict is an essential part of our human inheritance. I do not mean violent fighting. I mean the struggle by individuals to assert autonomy. That assertion and the resulting autonomy produce conflict. And that is ok.

Why Joyce got Angry at Yeats

Yeats was a great Irishman and a great artist of his day. He had the opportunity to meet a strange young man by the name of James Joyce. Joyce had written a few poems but was not famous … yet. The two had a chat at a pub about art. What a fantastic scene!

Yeats expected that the young man came for advice. Sage advice that Yeats was prepared to give. He found, to his surprise, that he was on trial. Young Joyce pronounced that there was no hope for the old man!

What was going on? It is an example of creative tension. Unavoidable tension that happens when people find themselves part of a story that is much larger than they are. Yeats had no idea that Joyce could have been so advanced in his creative thinking!


Dealing with Gordon Ramsey et al

There has been an ongoing debate in the media about whether bosses should be nice or tough. One of the earlier “not so nice” bosses to brag about his toughness was Jack Welch at GE. He famously made a top manager pee his pants at a workshop. It also has come out, that Steve Jobs was not a nice guy to work for. This was even after he came back to Apple. He just scared the hell out of people. It may be that Jeff Bezos also is not all fun and games to work for. And this has led some commentators to argue that you might become a better boss by scaring people. Call it “tough love”.

This is not a new idea. Sir Kenneth Clark talked about the “intensity” of barbaric life that created great art and accomplishment. That life glorified conflict at least in part, in order to produce that intensity. We call this now “animal spirits”. And it is the rallying cry of folks who want less government regulation and more market orientation. Let the games begin!

On the other hand, you also see arguments that “level 4 groups” work best. Dave Logan has presented this rather well. Level 4 groups feel great about the group they work in and what they are doing in that group. They shout out, “We are great”! Not just “I am great and you suck!” The value of being part of the group for the task is greater than any of the individuals included could generate on their own. And we know that nasty bosses can have a deeply negative effect on this kind of team development. Imagine Conan the barbarian trying to lead a yoga class. Something like that.

So who is right? More recent comment suggests that both nice and tough behavior patterns may be appropriate in different circumstances. One reason, as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi pointed out long ago in his book “Flow”, is that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. We crave happiness because it adds meaning to our lives. And we are willing and glad to work for it. So as Dan Pink and others have pointed out, finding meaning in work is highly motivating. Dan Ariely brings out this point in his TED talk. So nasty bosses who destroy the meaning we get from work (damaging the team spirit or the result) are not going to motivate creative work.

Does giving pleasure work as well? Well, that idea inspired hippies and others (like Joe Campbell) to elevate the idea of “following your bliss”. But pleasure does not stimulate work. It stimulates a craving for more pleasure until you are sated. So we discover that smiling bosses who only reward (call them the “candy men”) are less effective than they could be.

So how does one be tough enough but nice enough? Managers do have to be clear about the importance of standards that achieve meaning. That is the idea of public punishment. But does publicly punishing folks who don’t meet standards pay off? Jobs thought so. And others do that too — to make a point to the others. Gordon Ramsey makes money on TV by doing this. Here is the rub. As Gordon Zein points out, there is always risk in making and implementing business decisions. And the presence of risk implies that hard work might lead to failure. So witnessing public punishment for failure is likely to reduce the aptitude for taking risk. That may be good if you need people to stop taking certain risks – like missing deadlines. It is less good if you need people to take more risk in coming up with new ideas that may or may not add value. In other words, the value of punishment to enforce standards appears to be relative to the amount of creativity and risk that you need to promote.

This relates to conflict management. When we use standards in life, we are bound to create conflict. We will fail and others whom we rely on will fail too. Ooops. That is just life. When this happens, you have conflict by definition. What happens next is important. If you reward and punish solely based on meeting standards, you distract from the meaning of the standard in the context. You also implicitly make people risk averse. Whether that is good or bad depends on the strategy that you have adopted.

Something to think about.

Fighting for or Against?

Institutions are full of conflict. They have to be because things happen in them. Things have to be done according to standards, and imposing standards infringes on liberty. So we embrace rules and hierarchy as conflict management tools. And these work to a certain degree.

But there is a problem. Following rules does not motivate. Most of the time, nervousness about whether rules are met imposes stress instead. And if we want people to become more creative, we will need tools other than rules and hierarchy to manage conflict.

What do those tools look like? They are based on adoption of a common mission, where everyone sees the same goal and has the authority to act as needed to reach the goal. This “common mission” is what Bill Ury calls the third person in the room. In the corporate world, it can change the way the firm is organized, the way it shares knowledge, and the way it communicates with clients. Here is an example.


the Peaceful Warrior

It can be a challenge to balance the desire to get along with the desire to get ahead. Getting along suggests being flexible, being sensitive to what others want from you. Getting ahead suggests being focused, being less sensitive to others and more to your own values.

Is there a trick here? There is to a certain degree. One needs to be both, but in different arenas. Getting along is important. But one can be sensitive to others without being dominated by them. Getting ahead is important. But getting ahead does not mean succeeding at the expense of others.

There are ways to see this more clearly, Carina Strom Clark suggests being a “peaceful warrior”.  I like that.  In other words, never fight with people. The flip side is that one always is fighting for values.

Got it?

Knowing Your Opponent

It goes without saying that in conflict, one should focus on who is on the other side. It is obvious, right? It is obvious, and yet we often don’t.

Two examples.

During the US adventure in Afghanistan, the US thought it was fighting the Taliban. That, of course, seemed like a mismatch. Now, as the US prepares to pull out of Afghanistan in frustration after years and years of conflict, we begin to see who the real enemy was. It was an enemy inside Pakistan who the Americans had thought was a friend. It was the enemy who provided institutional support for the Taliban. And who is waiting for the US to pull out.

During the cold war, the west understood who the enemy was. It was “communist countries” most notably the USSR. Then the cold war ended. The USSR became Russia and gave up its communist ideology. Was it no longer an adversary? Well, it seemed that things had changed. But suddenly in 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine and the west is caught flat footed. Perhaps we got it wrong in the first place.

My point here is a rather simple one. Knowing who your opponent is means more than identifying a person or an institution who poses a barrier to getting what you want. The reason is that we don’t fight against people.