Picking the Right Fight

With research showing that happy workers can become bored, complacent and less productive; a little properly managed tension can work wonders for organisations.

Counter to conventional management wisdom that says aligned employees are happy and productive employees, a leader’s time is not always best spent trying to help teams get along. Research at top companies in numerous industries has shown that happy workers can become bored, complacent, and less productive than those who are subjected to a little properly managed tension, according to a new study by Booz & Company, in partnership with the Katzenbach Center—a new centre focused on the development and application of innovative ideas for organisational culture and change, formed through a strategic partnership between Booz & Company and US-based management consultancy firm Katzenbach Partners LLC.

“A certain amount of healthy struggle is good for organizations, and indeed they perform optimally when they are under the right kinds and amounts of stress. A key aspect of a leader’s job is to create the right battles and to make sure they are well fought. This is called creating “the right fight”—strategically employing tension to bring out the best in organizations and their leaders,” said Joe Saddi, chairman of Booz & Company and the firm’s Middle East managing director.

Right fights unleash the creative, productive potential of teams, organizations, and communities and make for better possibilities, but these battles need to be well-designed and subject to certain rules to be effective. Alignment cannot be ignored; without alignment, organizations can be plagued with wrong fights. But with alignment and properly managed tension, organizations can start realizing their potential.

Although there is still a lot of art to this kind of leadership, the rules of thumb are clear. “Applying them, you can easily distinguish a right fight from a wrong one. More importantly, through our work, clients understand when to fight and how to turn the inevitable conflicts into productive performance,” said Bahjat El-Darwiche, a partner at Booz & Company.

The job of a leader is to get the alignment right first, and then to find out how and when to inject the correct amount of tension into the organization to keep the momentum going and progress on an even keel.

Achieving the proper balance is essential because not all tensions are productive, so how do leaders get it right?

Avoiding the Wrong Fights

To better understand what makes a right fight, it’s important to also know how to recognize a wrong fight. Wrong fights have plagued organizational life as long as there have been organizations. Turf battles, egos, and petty concerns dominate all too many organizations’’ agendas in the long term. Three internal culprits are at the centre of most wrong fights:

  1. Alignment issues (especially financial ones)

  2. Runaway successes (leading to complacency)

  3. Personal agendas (getting in the way of organizational goals)

The external barriers are normally mirror images of the internal ones. Success too often creates complacency that can erode productive tension. But failure can also be destructive to right fights. Alignment works best in crisis situations and it can be difficult to know when to stop. It’s one of the reasons good turnaround leaders are often not successful in normal times.

How Do You Pick the Right Fights?

How leaders find the right fights and enable their teams to fight them productively is a matter of personal style. But the organizational field has become too complicated and crowded for style to carry the day. So how do leaders understand the subtle nuances that separate the right fights from the wrong ones? “Great leaders are not just intuitive about this; they are systematic, thoughtful, and proactive in the balancing act of alignment and tension,” explained Saddi There are five rules of thumb that every leader needs to know as they step up to the job of leadership:

  • Make it sport, not war: Even though business fights can be vicious, there is a code of conduct that good leaders follow. They establish themselves or others as referees to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. They minimize wasted energy over manipulative infighting. They make sure that the energies of their teams are focused on the right things. They make sure that along the way, everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow. Although there will be winners and losers, there doesn’t need to be humiliating and debilitating personal attacks.

  • Focus on creating the future: Right fights are about the future, not the past. Good leaders have clarity of vision; they know what to direct their people to focus on, and what to eliminate from the field. “They also know how to listen, how to invite dissent, how to translate strategy at the top into terms that matter to the front line and they know that hearts matter as much as minds,” noted El-Darwiche. They are committed to moulding and shaping a future that many will want to be part of.

  • Connect to a purpose outside the organization: Right fights can’t be about something internal and irrelevant to the larger purpose of the company. Creating profound alignment linked to a purpose is the first mark of all great leadership. But alignment in and of itself is not the goal. Rather, it creates the environment in which there can be right fights for a future worth creating, a future that reaches across boundaries between investors and employees, customers and communities, touching all those that organizations intend to serve.

  • Manage tension through relationships: Successful leaders structure fights through the formal organization—the chain of command—but make them work through the informal organization—all the networks of personal and professional connections that are not on the organizational chart. “By using the informal organization, leaders can gain extraordinary power to mediate passions and self-interest, and keep the tensions from running amok. Knowing how to harness the power of the informal organization is the best way to ensure that things don’t cross the line from sport to destructive war,” saddi said.

  • Make sure everyone grows, even if they don’t win: When the fights are the right ones, and everyone behaves well enough, the struggle will teach valuable lessons to all involved. A hallmark of right fights is that when they are well orchestrated, all who participate will benefit even when they don’t win—and most will recognize that in time.