Some years back, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review that looked into how management teams could manage conflict within their companies. “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy and L. J. Bourgeois III, made a powerful case that healthy conflict was necessary in an organization, and that its absence was not harmony… it was apathy. The authors argue:
[T]eams whose members challenge one another’s thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make the kinds of effective decisions necessary in today’s competitive environments.
Sounds good, but this leads to an obvious follow-up question: what constitutes healthy conflict?
For the authors, the answer is clear: good conflict is honest, direct, impersonal and issue-focused, while unhealthy conflict tends to be manipulative, driven by politics and directed towards individuals. In an unhealthy system, discussions fragment into cliques where team members battle like characters in Game of Thrones for position rather than work toward resolving an issue. Anger and frustration are out in the open. On the other hand, in a good team, members are able to argue without destroying their ability to work together. The ability to juggle differing viewpoints, agendas and goals allows successful management teams to make high-stakes decisions in the face of considerable uncertainty, while under pressure to move quickly.
In the end, the authors find several points that show whether or not an organization manages conflict effectively, including a willingness to work with more facts rather than less, develop multiple alternatives to enrich the level of debate, share commonly agreed-upon goals, and maintain a balanced power structure. They conclude that these elements must be present for a group to manage stressful moments of transition.
This framework gives much food for thought about the Orchestra’s ongoing labor dispute, and how the long-foreseen contract negotiations could lead to an interminable lockout and the cancellation of an entire season. For this analysis, it’s helpful to take a step back and not just focus on the inner workings of the leadership team, but to see a broader “team” made up of all the Orchestra’s principal shareholders. This allows us to look more closely at how the MOA leadership has managed the conflict with the other major players in the dispute—particularly the musicians.
More Facts, Please
One of the most important points the authors make is that limiting access to data doesn’t reduce conflict… it inflames it. Over the course of their study, the authors found that some managers believe that having too much data at hand, shared by too many people, will increase conflict by expanding the range of issues for debate. This isn’t borne out in the real world, however. Successful organizations feel that the more information is shared, the better—it encourages people to focus on issues and data, instead of personalities. Without good data, groups waste time in pointless debates over opinions that by their nature can never be resolved. Lacking good data invites some individuals to resort to self-aggrandizement and their own “gut feelings.” As a result, disagreements begin to focus on the person making a decision—and his or her style of making them—rather than the data itself.
Sadly, I think the MOA management has engaged in a clear pattern of limiting access to data over the course of the Orchestra dispute. Board documents going back to 2009 show the board has willfully engaged in a pattern of withholding data from key constituents, including the musicians, donors and the state legislature. The board authorized excessive draws from the endowment to give the illusion that finances were in order, and President Henson gave several media interviews proclaiming the Orchestra was thriving with balanced budgets in a difficult economic environment. The truth was quite different; the Orchestra was certainly not thriving, and management planned to use the excessive draws to force a business reset. But this wasn’t the only instance of withholding information. Repeatedly, outside observers including the musicians and the state government have demanded a through financial analysis… but the leadership refused. When external pressure forced the board to agree to an independent analysis, it hand-picked its own firm, dictated the issues to be covered, and made vague promises to “share” findings with the musicians. Certainly a Kafka-esque definition of “independent analysis.”
A far better solution, from my perspective, would have been to be brutally honest with the musicians upfront—tell them that the organization was nearing a tipping point and needed a new business model. Then, prove it to them by showing elaborate projections, forecasts, analyses, multi-year trends and comparable data from peer orchestras. At that point, start making the case to donors, the community, and the state government about the need for a business reset. If leadership had an air-tight case that the lobby renovation was the only way the Orchestra could move toward profitability (as they currently list on their website)… why not make that case to the legislature, rather than the case it made, which was based on how financially stable and fiscally responsible the organization was?
Multiply the Alternatives
Another key argument from the Harvard article is that some managers believe they can reduce conflict by focusing on only one or two alternatives. It’s a lot easier to convince people to chose A when the only alternative is its polar opposite, Z. Research shows, however, that teams that manage conflict successfully often develop multiple alternatives, often considering four or five options at once. Great managers also introduce choices they do not necessarily support, simply to spur discussion and tease out creative solutions. Generating a range of options tends to concentrate energy on solving problems and increases the likelihood of integrative solutions. It also diffuses conflict by allowing for multiple points of agreement, making it possible for team members to shift positions without losing face. Finally, it ensures buy-in from across the organization.
Unfortunately, they way the MOA leadership has managed the dispute, the number of options has been reduced, leading to higher levels of conflict and personal animosity. The Orchestra’s leadership team bluntly stated that although they welcomed dialog with the musicians, their proposal was, in fact, their final offer: the musicians had to accept $5 million in pay cuts along with hundreds of changes to the contract. Obviously, all sides in a labor dispute have to make hard-nosed demands upfront so they have room to negotiate; but the non-negotiable demands, repeated frequently, have not engaged the musicians in the process. The musicians weren’t approached to help solve the problem—they were treated as if they were the problem that needed to be solved. Some might argue that the musicians followed the same pattern by not submitting a counterproposal, but this is a false equivalency. I believe the musicians are right to point out that without solid financial data (see previous point) they can’t offer viable alternatives or understand the management’s long-range plans. They are not even being given a choice between A or Z… they are being told to accept A on trust alone.
Again, if the intention had been to find a holistic solution and create buy-in among all constituents, a wiser move would have been to explore many options, to offset cuts in one area with new benefits elsewhere. Instead, it feels like this entire situation was engineered as a win-lose situation from the beginning.
Creating Common Goals
Another effective tool for minimizing harmful conflict is to frame choices as collaborative instead of competitive. This means that effective, successful groups frame their decisions as a true partnership in which it is in everyone’s interest to achieve the best possible solution for the entire team. The Harvard Business Review article notes that such a solution does not imply homogenous thinking, but it does require a shared vision. Steve Jobs famously stated, “It’s okay to spend a lot of time arguing about which route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there, but a lot of time gets wasted in such arguments if one person wants to go to San Francisco and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”
The failure to follow this line of reasoning is clear in the battle over the Orchestra’s mission statement. Musicians were infuriated when the leadership simply announced a new mission statement that removed mention of orchestral music altogether, and instead included language about financial sustainability. This was a double blow. For one, it removed what should be the core function of an orchestra—presenting orchestral music—and replaced it with a subjective metric. What is “financially sustainable” and who gets to decide? Is it hiring high school musicians because they’re cheap? Performing popular works ad nauseum? Plus, this whole notion is redundant… is there an organization that aspires to financially unsustainable, thereby spending itself into bankruptcy? The ultimate aspiration of the organization can’t be simply to be profitable, as that doesn’t say anything about what the organization does, who it does it for or how it’s different from competitors. But what really stung for the musicians is the fact that they weren’t consulted on this critical matter. They were told, essentially, that their top concern was no longer making music, it was making money. This was, for many, a significant departure from their existing job description.
Balancing the Power Structure
The Harvard article demonstrates again and again that successful leaders have to balance a fine line between being too strong and too weak. Autocratic leaders who mange though highly centralized power structures create waves of interpersonal friction, but so do weak leaders who allow team members to ruthlessly vie for power. A successful team should have a clear leader and a clear power structure; that said, individual members should still wield substantial power, especially within clearly-defined areas of responsibility. Multiple studies have shown that autocratic leadership tends to spawn aggression, hostility, and scapegoating. Balanced power structures, on the other hand, tend to lead toward collaboration, praise, and mutual respect.
Part of the problem with this labor dispute has been the tremendously imbalanced power structure of the organization. Without strong representation on the board, particularly on the executive committee, the musicians don’t have a strong voice in how the organization runs; nor have they been able to play an effective role in shaping the organization’s values and objectives. Obviously, many musicians don’t have the formal training to engage in the day-to-day operations of the Orchestra, but they certainly have expertise in the area of the art itself. Could they be given more power over artistic planning or the shaping of the artistic priorities of the organization? Are there other areas they could take a leadership role? Areas where perhaps the management has less expertise? Can a balance be found?
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Well, it is probably clear by now that I’m not a fan of how this situation has been handled. In my own bit of editorializing, it seems that so many fundamental areas conflict resolution have been mismanaged that I can’t shake the notion that the whole labor dispute came about not from a quest to find a solution to the Orchestra’s financial situation, but simply from a desire to impose a pre-determined business model onto the organization. Obviously, I could be wrong—I’m just an outsider making observations on what I see going on. And if I am wrong, and if the leadership is indeed serious about resolving this situation, I would suggest that what truly needs a reset is not the Orchestra’s business model, but management’s conflict resolution model. It’s not too late to revisit the dispute and attempt to resolve it utilizing the points I listed above. I think that would go a long way toward achieving a fair, productive resolution that all sides can live with.