Many companies bemoan the fact that they have so much infighting. Often they’ll bring in a management consultant or a leadership coach to “fix the problem”. They’ll ask us the equivalent of, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I usually surprise folks with this opinion – sometimes this kind of infighting is one of the best things that can occur in a company.
This can seem counter intuitive to a lot of leaders and managers. After all, many management books have been written about Japanese management styles of complete alignment and even before those, weren’t we all been told that an organization which is sharing and caring is the best kind? The answer, I believe, is, It Depends.
Not meaning to sound like someone from your corporate legal department let me explain: It depends on what kind of a company the leaders want. And what kind of external threats the company faces. Some companies have a very clear cut HR strategy reflecting the goals and objectives of the company leadership. Other companies have virtually no written HR strategy because they are mostly focused on things like market share and revenue.
If a company has decided to be an organization focused on attracting good people with an environment that encourages the employees and managers to stay for a long time; then an outbreak of infighting – be it between individuals or departments – is disruptive and needs to be brought into line. After all, such corporate politicking can cause many of those people to start reaching for their desk’s top drawer for one of those purple pills. Anxiety in that kind of environment may quickly create dysfunction and, with it, a loss of progress.
But if you’re in a tough and competitive marketplace, having a culture that allows, or even encourages, warring camps to form may provide a great competitive edge. Doing business in a tough marketplace can be ugly. Having a culture that allows the development of warring camps in the company may turn out to be one of the best ways to deal with external threats. Sound implausible? Consider the story of the the Gillette company. Years ago, when the folks at Bic decided take them on and to try to dominate the cheap disposable razor business; Gillette quickly saw the rise of 2 separate “camps”. Each had conflicting ideas and strategy regarding the best way to respond to Bic. One wanted to let Bic take the low profit business, and then with that saved money, to invest in building a better razor which could be sold for a lot more money. The other faction wanted to meet Bic head on and force them out of the game. The story goes that both sides duked it out in meetings, company presentations, and email wars for nearly 2 years before the winning side became clearly the steel camp. Gillette started making and selling premium products with the result that profits soared and their reputation became synonymous with quality as opposed to cheap.
Could they have achieved the same outcome without the blood and hassle? Perhaps. But they would more likely have fallen into a ‘group think’ mentality that led them to try to compete on price alone. And the likely result would have been that the company would end up sold after losing revenues and profits in an impossible price war with a larger competitor. Another US icon would become a subsidiary of a larger European conglomerate. (Can you say Chrysler and Mercedes?)
I don’t advocate creating an organization with back stabbing or lies being the norm. Personally, I understand why many people would rather work in a company that is nice and has little internal conflict or few rough external competitors. But, in an era where even lawyers, medical doctors, and CPAs are losing their jobs to outsourcing I think it’s incumbent upon company managers and leaders to give serious thought to what their HR strategy should be in their particular sector.