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Why Do People Fight in an Organization?

Most all of us, at one time or another, have put our heads in our hands in frustration and exasperatedly asked, “Why do people fight in an organization?” Office politics are exhausting and expensive—in terms of both actual and opportunity costs. Just think of how much money we waste through continual turnover caused by a toxic work environment. And think of the incredible work people could do with the energy exerted playing the political games of who’s right and who’s more important? When we all feel the significance of our work, everything else falls away: Our insecurities, self-interests, and grievances about past injustices.

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Why We Fight,” Annie McKee writes: “The problem is, we’re not working in a perfect world, and none of us is perfect. We each bring our own baggage to work each day. And, some of our issues rear their heads again and again. At the top of my list of sources of work conflict are: personal insecurity, the desire for power and control, and habitual victimhood.”

I agree, but I’d like to offer an additional reason, one that makes it easier for those conditions to manifest: insufficient focus on why the organization does what it does and why it matters.

Think about a time in your life, either personal or professional, in which disagreements were productive (not destructive), consensus came gracefully, and the results were celebrated by all. For me, I remember being part of teams producing perfect events, creating a 90th birthday celebration for our mother, and helping care for a sick friend. In all those situations, the people around me and I all wanted the same outcome more than we wanted anything else: the adrenaline and positive energy of happy people gathered together, a mother who felt loved and appreciated, a friend who was not suffering. Why can’t we identify the lowest common inspirator?

When we all understand and—more importantly—feel the significance of our work, everything else falls away: Our insecurities, self-interests, and grievances about past injustices. They are all gone or at the very least diluted.

One of the reasons why younger professionals are fleeing corporate jobs for those at social enterprises, in particular, is because those places offer them something more important than being right, being the boss, even being promoted. It gives them a way to feel as if they matter far more potent than being right.

Why can’t we identify the lowest common inspirator? Find the one reason, the one emotional trigger that makes the work not about individuals but about what they can achieve together. We can. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. It takes introspection, fresh perspectives, and it takes focus. From there, it’s about messaging that continually and consistently reinforces, reassures, and revels in the work we do.

Douglas Spencer

Douglas Spencer

Douglas Spencer is a brand strategist with more than 20 years of experience in marketing and branding. He has worked with professionals from around the world in verticals such as financial and professional services, healthcare, biotech, media, and nonprofit. Before starting Spencer Brenneman he was most recently Vice President, Global Head of Brand Management for Thomson Reuters, a leading provider of intelligent information with offices in more than 100 countries worldwide. In that role, he guided the migration of the multiple Thomson and Reuters businesses to form the new Thomson Reuters brand which consistently ranked within the top 50 of Interbrand's Best Global Brands survey. He is also the author of Do They Care? The one question all brands should ask themselves, continually, a book that shows business leaders how they can create meaningful connections with customers, employees, and others. Douglas is a frequent speaker on how strong brands improve business performance through strategic alignment, employee engagement, brand governance, verbal and visual identities and more.

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