Why avoiding office conflict is not an option

July 14, 2011, 4:46 PM UTC

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, contributors

FORTUNE — Call it organizational conflict, office politics, or just plain drama, few

of us enjoy disagreement or confrontation, at work or elsewhere. In fact, many of us spend a significant portion of our time and energy avoiding it.

“I don’t know how to handle the office politics,” said one mid-level manager who approached us at a recent management conference. “Everybody’s fighting all the time. In my last job, I could just keep my head down and stick to my knitting. How can I stay out of all that?”

Unfortunately, we had to tell her what she probably didn’t want to hear. She didn’t need to play political games, but she couldn’t and shouldn’t avoid the organizational conflict that leads people to play those games.

In our experience, her attitude is rampant among managers and it’s a huge barrier that often makes them far less effective than they need to be.

This lesson came through loud and clear in the experience described to us by another manager in publishing. At a crucial task force meeting on the use of editorial content across divisions, he delivered a compelling case for not changing company policy.

The policy, which was to encourage non-competitive sharing of content without charge, was crucial to his business model. At the meeting, however, he discovered that those who opposed him had obviously met beforehand and agreed on the change they wanted. In effect, they’d decided the official position of the task force before he could even make his case.

Unfair? For him, it was yet another example of dirty office politics. “I’ll never play those games,” he told us.

We think he was mistaken. He confused petty politics, the pursuit of personal aspirations and needs, with genuine disagreement about an important question. What’s wrong, we wanted to know, with seeking allies and presenting a united front when real business issues are at stake? “Why weren’t you,” we asked, “the one talking to task force members and seeking allies before the meeting?

Let’s be clear. We never tell any manager to “be political” or to “play politics.” We do tell them, however, that they must be willing and able to operate effectively in the political environment that exists in all organizations. Their success will depend on their ability to manage not just their own groups but the broader organizations within which they operate.

We see too many managers who hold themselves above the fray and deal with others only when absolutely necessary. They misunderstand the nature of organizational conflict. They think it’s dysfunctional or a sign of poor organizational design. Or, they assume it springs from groups vying for dominance.

In fact, conflict is inevitable and natural because of three features inherent in all modern organizations.

  1. Division of labor. Organizations function by assigning different tasks to different individuals and groups. Not everyone can do everything. Though they operate under the same organizational umbrella, these groups inevitably develop their own points of view, goals, and priorities.
  1. Interdependence. Every group depends on other groups in the organization to do its work. No group can function or succeed on its own.
  1. Scarce resources. No organization can do everything that those in it would like to do. Choices must be made. When resources like money, people, space, time, and attention are divvied up, there will always be winners and losers. Obviously, every group wants to win.

Most organizational conflict springs not from battling egos but from legitimate differences of opinion among different groups about what the business should do. Should it invest in this or that market? Should it build a plant here or there? Should it make this product or another one?

Of course, people do play organizational games. There are thugs and bullies who do seek to dominate. There are dysfunctional aspects of organizational conflict that are driven by individual personalities. More often, though, legitimate conflict — differences of opinion about real business issues — can seem personal because the people involved have become emotionally invested in the positions they take — a lamentable but fully human response. That doesn’t make the issues themselves personal. It just means those involved must work to separate their egos from the underlying questions.

If organizational conflict is inevitable, and you cannot avoid it because it often involves important questions, you need to understand how it typically gets resolved. We’d like to think choices are made through rational analysis based on data, which will reveal to all involved the “right” or “best” answer. Unfortunately, while analysis is always useful and often illuminating, most important issues are too complex for it to produce indisputable answers.

Most organizational conflicts are resolved through influence. The groups with bosses that have influence will get what they need. Those groups whose bosses lack influence will not.

If the thought of consciously accumulating and exerting influence bothers you, imagine the consequences if you had no influence at all. You and your group would be at the mercy of what others demand of you. Yes, power can corrupt, but powerlessness corrupts too. Just think about all the people throughout history who have explained the evil they did by saying, “I had no choice. I had to do what I was told.”

To be an effective boss, you must influence others — people and groups over whom you have no formal control — to get what your group needs and to work for what you believe is best and right. Your own people count on you to do this because they cannot do their work well otherwise. Your organization depends on voices like yours to keep it on the right track.

The best way to build influence is to create ongoing relationships for mutual advantage. There’s no reason you cannot do this while holding yourself to high standards of openness, honesty, fairness, and respect.

“Playing politics” and wielding influence in a political environment aren’t the same. Ironically, the way to cope with dysfunctional “politics” is to engage others, not avoid them. Hunkering down will only make you less influential and so less effective.

Engage those around you — not to play political games but to build real bridges — if you hope to accomplish the work that you believe needs doing.

Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kent Lineback, a writer with 30 years of management experience, are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.