Our conflict addiction

We have a cultural history of gathering our facts – sometimes aggressively – storing them up, collating and crafting them for maximum impact and lobbing them (literally) over people’s front fences.

We wait for the reaction with glee, before going through the whole process again – either in response to what our last drama created, or to find another issue to expose.

It is why, as a general rule, great journalists make terrible business managers.

We’re addicted to the drama, we want to change things NOW or die, nobly, trying and take the government with us as we go.

We love the politics of corporations because it’s where the story and interest is, and it’s what we understand.

It takes a long time for many journalists to understand that engaging in the political is not the best way to get things done in any business, even their own.

And that while the strength of journalism is exposing and highlighting weaknesses, the strength of a good executive is in counter intuitive processes of building up an organisation against resistance, reinforcing the positive and overcoming challenges by working through them.

The trauma that managers of “normal” departments, such as sales and marketing feel when dealing with their editorial teams was referred to many times during the recent INMA Congress in New York.

Roger Dunbar, the vice president of business development and marketing at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Canada, gave an entire presentation on how trying to get teams of editors and editorial managers to trust the science of research when it came to understanding their readers had led him to several years of psychotherapy.

We hoped he was joking but the groans and laughs he got from many in the room showed he wasn’t alone.

Later, on site at the New York Times, the vice president of Advertising Sales, Todd Haskell laughed uproariously when asked whether there was any conflict between Editorial and Sales teams.

“We have what I think is most politely called ‘robust debate’,” he admitted. “But it is necessary because we have to push the envelope, so we’re always exploring new ground.”

Haskell did admit, however, that because of the frequency of the discussions, the two departments had now managed to “play nice”.

“The Publisher doesn’t have to adjudicate or make the decisions any more,” he said.

“Good conflict” is necessary in every business, according to an article by US academics Amason, Hochwarter, Thompson and Harrison. (Conflict: An important dimension in successful management teams, Organisational Dynamics, 1995)

They argue there are two types of conflict – A-Type conflict which is “affective conflict” – aggressive and angry, harmful, based on personalised disagreements and this detrimentally affects team performance.

And there is C-Type conflict – “creative conflict” which encourages innovative thinking and can actually improve the decision-making process.

“A-type conflict fosters cynicism, distrust and avoidance,” the academics write. The response to A-Type is either fight or flight, but neither of these responses fosters good business.

Successful teams, however, use conflict to their advantage to arouse discussion and stimulate creative thinking.

The focus is on ideas, issues and challenges – not personality or power. “Effective teams know how to manage conflict so that it makes a positive contribution.”

As newspaper companies search out strategies to grow into the future of multiple platform publishing, there is always going to be conflict – between Editorial and Advertising, between Print and Online.

It’s part of the terrain as we struggle to work out the best way forward and grow our revenue without selling out our values.

The “trick” is not to avoid it – the research shows that avoiders are even less effective than warriors – nor appeal to an independent adjudicator that one side should dominate.

As an industry, it’s probably time we learned to thrash out the issues with an eye to the bigger picture, kiss and make up at the end, and never go to sleep on an argument.

– Kylie Davis is the chief of staff of the Sun-Herald newspaper.

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