Bands not in harmony

One of the counterintuitive business lessons I gathered from nearly two decades of playing in rock bands was how conflict helps teams.

Not just in my own bands, but also in the many groups I shared a stage with, hung out with, or studied from a distance.

Conflict was the crucible in which these musicians honed their craft, built their identity, and created their products.

I don't simply mean “dealing with differences.” I'm talking dissension, disagreement, even discord. That kind of conflict can generate the frictional sparks that ignite creativity, inspiration, and energy. (It also seems to increase a team’s resilience—as if by fortifying its immune system against future threats.)

Legendary bands from the earliest classic rock era (e.g., Kinks, Who, Cream, Zeppelin) to later times (Guns N’ Roses, Blur, Oasis, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) are well-known for their ferocious intraband squabbles—which helped fuel their musical fire.

Ray Davies of the Kinks recently observed:

In rock, there has to be an element of conflict. We wouldn’t have made “All Day and All of the Night” without that aggression. It gives you an edge, and the bands that lasted the longest had that edge to begin with.

Admittedly, the Kinks took it to extremes. Their on-stage brawls prevented them from getting US work visas during the peak of their recording success, possibly denying them superstardom in the late 60s. But they capitalized on their “aggression” and “edge” to attract millions of listeners and influence the future direction of rock.

In the case of The Who, their brand identity was forged from the conflict of founding members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, says rock critic Dave Marsh.

The [Who’s] style took shape around the mutual antagonism of the sneering collegiate Townshend and the roughneck laborer Daltrey. The band developed a style and personality which was the collective expression of the resulting tension.

We need look no further than the top tech giants to see how conflict lies at the root of mainstream business success. Google, for instance, was created from the intellectual combat that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin engaged in from the moment they met—and has been perpetuated by the free-thinking independence of their teams, not known for their deferential obeisance to authority. Meanwhile, Apple, thanks to its late founder Steve Jobs, has always flourished with contentious battles among its teams. According to business innovator and ex-Apple employee Nilofer Merchant:

[Jobs] eliminated passive aggressiveness and encouraged debate when new ideas were forming…There are going to be disagreements. But it is through the tension of that creative conflict that new ideas get born, new angles get explored, and risks get mitigated.

Of course the same dynamic that gives a team its edge can also be the cause of its destruction if it's not managed. I've seen this with too many start-ups that lacked the verbal tools or techniques to harness their conflict.

But a few of these tools are easy to learn and apply. I’ve taught many a young team how to use less provocative language when expressing dissenting views, especially if sensitivities are running high and team members are likely to overreact. For instance, it’s sometimes best to register disagreements as a difference in perception rather than as a proprietary claim on the truth. For example: “I see this issue somewhat differently” or “Here’s another way of looking at this.” Phrasing your objection as a question is also less provocative: “What if we looked at it this way…?” “Is it possible that we’re overlooking…?” (Notice the strategic use of “we.”)

It also may be wise to avoid more polarizing phrases such as: “I disagree!” or “you're wrong!” or “the only way to do it is this way!” (Unless, of course, your intention is to polarize.) Such language can make it easier for others to hear contrary opinions without getting defensive, which can get them further stuck in their positions. None of this is meant to suppress dissent, but to frame it in a way that the team can work through it—and make better decisions based on a multiplicity of views.

Alas, in my playing days most of the bands I knew did not have these tools at their disposal. Some of the most gifted groups broke up too early because they never found a way to manage their disagreements. (Substance abuse was also a problem in many cases, but that was sometimes symptomatic of a deeper inability to resolve conflict.)

Exhibit A was Eric Clapton’s Cream in the late 60s. As I wrote here six years ago (have I really been blogging that long?), I witnessed that band’s interpersonal conflict up close when my band opened for them at the peak of their success. Drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce, and Clapton barely spoke to each other on or off stage, so they took their aggression out on their instruments (and everybody's ears), expressing it through their performance. (Each would crank up the volume to outdo each other.) Within months this mega-talented trio had disbanded.

Regrettably, bands—with a few exceptions (such as Metallica)—have not made a practice of using outside expertise to help them work through their disagreements.

For an earlier post on the value of conflict, check here.

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    1. Didn’t say “just.” I thought I qualified it to death. I’ll try it again: it wouldn’t be breaking news to suggest there is sometimes a connection between substance abuse and conflict — interpersonal or intrapersonal.

      Just because I’m not a psychologist doesn’t mean I can’t play one on my own blog.

  1. Bands have leaders and followers. The leaders fight, the followers follow. The substance abuse often mitigates a lot of ultimatums and quittings. The followers are often the bass & drums--except for Power Trios--not in Cream--though Hendrix just had two followers. Can't imagine how The Band did it, they were all leaders!

    It's critical band & business folks can fight/argue without holding grudges. The Stones were like that.

    1. In the bands I was in, the leader and follower roles changed all the time. Someone would take the lead on stage, someone else would run the business, someone else would handle equipment decisions, etc. Plenty of debate on all fronts tho.

      In the old days there were quite a few drummers who played leadership roles in their bands, from Dave Clark to Mick Fleetwood to Buddy Miles.

  2. Hi John - hope you are well mate - all is good here. The Kinks were my favourite band when growing up in here in England in the 60's and they never got the credit they deserved with the legendary Beatles being around. I remember buying my vinyl 45 copy of Waterloo Sunset - one of my first purchases ... that was a classic track .... Ahhh memories eh? - Hope you are well ... Love from Annie and me - seems a long time ago we met up

    1. Trev - there's lots of talk about The Kinks getting back together this year with Ray and Dave hopefully putting aside old conflicts and doing some shows together. Cross fingers...

      1. Would love to see that Mark - I need some joy as my beloved M<an United crumble .... Mind you I'll never lose the faith :-)

      1. Things are wonderful here thanks Joel - hope you are well too my friend. Sorry I missed you when we visited US in Summer of 2012 - was terrific to meet up with Dave Wheeler, John O'Leary, Rocky Noe, Marilyn Jess, Steve Sherlock and Tom Asacker ... All of whom I met 'virtually' through blogging ... wonderful to visit your country ... that's one ambition ticked off my bucket list ....maybe one day we will meet up one side of the pond - take care Sir

    2. Yes, the Kinks never got the respect they deserved. But you can hear Ray Davies' influence in some contemporary rock — e.g., the social commentary of Fountains of Wayne (one of my faves).

      I'll look you guys up when I do my British tour! :-)

  3. I suspect a great deal of the problem with aggression is when ego takes over and one person can't acknowledge that, whatever he thinks about the other person, his or her idea is a good one. Or even simply to recognise that they don't actually have the monopoly on good ideas and other people have them as well. In business, this often results in a, "My way or the highway" attitude and we all know how unhealthy that is in anything but emergency situations.

    I've recently been asked to supervise a team that is lead by someone whose not particularly aggressive but still insists everything is done her way and brooks no deviation. Result: her team come in, do things her way and can't wait for 5pm. It's incredibly rewarding (but a time-consuming task) to work with this manager to get her to do incredibly radical stuff like ask her staff what they think (many thanks to Dave Wheeler), listen without interrupting, pick up on some of the ideas and let them do the tasks the way they want to. She's enjoying the fact that she doesn't spend all day checking and micro-managing but now her ego's making her worry that a couple of her team are actually rather good and she sees them as a challenge to her position.

    And I think this is the essence of the problem: there's a lot of talk about working in a team with talented and sparky people but there's a lot of folk who can't reconcile that with a "command and control" mentality.

    1. A LOT of folks in business, including those who should know better by now, just can’t accept the fact that the traditional org chart has been turned upside down over the last [fill in the blank] years. These days the best managers know they need to operate more like (gasp!) community organizers and less like chain gang supervisors. Managers really, actually, in point of fact DO work for employees, not the other way around. But, having said that, it can be a trap in business to assume we know why people are acting the way they’re acting in a particular role—especially a manager/supervisor. That particular manager might be worried about any number of things unrelated to retaining “command and control.”

  4. "eliminated passive aggressiveness"

    I'll take open disagreement over that kind of snark any day. It takes respect and generosity to foster the kind of communication necessary for a band or a business.

    I made mistakes with all my bands. Poor communication, an overbearing egotistical front man (wait; that was me . . . ) and not enough disagreement.

    It's something I'm searching for now, some partners who'll push back and remind me that the path I'm on, the path I love, isn't the only way to the goal.

  5. Usually the bass & drums are the low-key followers but then there's Fleetwood Mac, Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham and such. It seems that the best admixture is a lucky one: the right blend of Alpha male(s) and low-ego supporters but with enough pushback freedom to allow any and all to blow off steam without a breakdown.

    Of course, what usually makes these formulas work for extended periods in the real world is a little ingredient known as success. It's amazing what blokes will tolerate when there's a cash machine built into the deal. Or in Mac's case: he was actually lost at first without his backup band. He was emotionally shattered and went and hid for a while, got drunk a lot. So financial and emotional/creative dependence increase longevity. But is longevity per se always desirable? The divorce rate would suggest a resounding NO!

    1. Yeah, that "right blend" is critical. I sometimes think of myself as a "low-ego supporter" kind of musician, but I'm known to be delusional.

      Success can swing both ways of course. There have been bands that couldn't deal with some of the expectations that accompanied success. Lots of bands that didn't stick around long enough to make a second album.

      Good example with Macca. Amazing that a musician/songwriter at the very top of his game could go through a kind of breakdown like that.

      Yeah, longevity is overrated. Ars longa vita brevis. That's a recurring theme on this blog: what matters is the longevity of your contribution, not how long you're in business. The smart players get that. They know there's always another business to start or join.

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