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.