Management by Contention Doesn’t Work

By Steve McKee

Consensus and contentious are similar-sounding words that share a few things in common. They both come from the Latin. They’re both directions in which conflict can head. And they both begin with a “con” (Latin for “with”) and end in an “us.” What makes consensus and contentious different is what’s between the with and the us: sensibility or tension.

Forgive the etymological license, but I think it highlights a helpful point. Consensus is necessary to the healthy functioning of organizations and institutions. Contentious is the way to describe too many professional interactions—especially in times of unusual stress brought about by a rapidly changing and increasingly politicized environment (when we need even more sensibility and less tension).

Not all conflict is bad, of course. One of the brilliant aspects of the U.S. Constitution — the world’s longest-surviving constitution — is its treatment of conflict not as a bug but a feature. Congress in general and the Senate in particular were set up in such a way as to achieve stable, long-term consensus through (sometimes contentious) disagreement and debate. In recent decades, unfortunately, congressional consensus has succumbed to ceaseless contentiousness for reasons (televised floor sessions, the 24/7 news cycle, and more) that social scientists love to debate.

There’s not a lot any of us can do about the shortcomings of Congress, but each of us is obligated to ensure that our companies operate in a healthy way. The extent to which we have smart, capable, opinionated people on our management teams and staff is the extent to which we can expect conflict to naturally arise. Our challenge is to ensure it remains healthy, and that’s the stuff of corporate culture.

My firm’s research regarding organizational dynamics has repeatedly underscored how contentiousness around the conference room table may be the single most consequential issue with respect to the success or failure of an organization. Companies, like countries, must be governed. And companies, like countries, are made up of people and interest groups with diverse interests and differing opinions.

One of the cultural touchstones at my firm is a simple statement: “It’s about the idea.” Our job is to provide the most effective strategy, direction and advice we can to our clients, which means we must internally stress-test our recommendations. Everybody in our company, regardless of rank, title, background or seniority, has an open invitation (an expectation, really) to question and/or challenge any and every idea put forth.

It must be done in a spirit of respect, focusing on the merits of the idea rather than the person bringing it. But it must be done, lest we do a disservice to our clients (and ourselves).

To be sure, consensus alone doesn’t guarantee success. Like Blockbuster, which doubled down its bet on the retail experience instead of moving online a la Netflix, it’s possible to achieve consensus around a wrongheaded decision. But without consensus, even the best strategies won’t be well-executed.

That doesn’t mean your people can or will inevitably come to agreement on every point. Quite the contrary. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks about the ability to “disagree and commit,” underscoring that it’s possible (and sometimes necessary) for rational people to come to a consensus to move forward on something without having been fully convinced.

That’s another aspect of healthy corporate culture: If people work in an intellectually honest environment in which they’re confident they’ll be heard, they’ll be more willing to commit to a direction when circumstances require it, even if they don’t fully agree.

Still, managed consensus should be the norm. In rare cases, a particularly charismatic (or dictatorial) leader can get away with regularly overriding the opinions of his or her team. But most of us are not well-suited to do that, and it’s not a sustainable strategy.

Martin Luther King Jr. described a genuine leader as “a molder of consensus.” Each of us can be that leader if we are intentional about shaping and sustaining the proper environment in which decisions get made.

Listen to your people. Give their opinions a fair hearing. Argue, debate, and contend with one another. Then come to a reasonable next step. Ideally, you’ll agree and commit. It’s also OK to disagree and commit. But there’s no such thing as management by contention (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Contentiousness may make for good TV, but not for good government. Or good business.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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