Four Ways to Channel Creative Tension in Firms and Teams

I am often asked how it is possible to manage a group of awkward, antagonistic and difficult people in firms where clashes of personalities and style have in the past led to bitter disputes and epic conflagrations. It is of course a joy to see firms, and top management teams within them, where cooperation and cohesiveness are valued and where the members are united by the desire to maintain good relationships between everybody. The problem however is not just that such firms are in a minority, but that on the whole firms that place a high premium on conformity and consensus often do worse than firms where the partners and leadership team have diverse skills and multiple perspectives. Leading a heterogeneous management team or cohort of partners can prove to be enormously demanding, particularly across a number of offices or jurisdictions, but creative tension can often be channelled to generate innovation, to create alternative ideas and to challenge established mind-sets.
To achieve positive results in widely varied environments, managing partners need to establish and coordinate four things

Harnessing the power of multiple perspectives
Whilst strategic planning processes in heterogeneous firms can be painful and argumentative, a broad consideration of alternatives cannot fail to be an advantage and diverse viewpoints often result in greater innovation and healthy debate. The managing partner’s role is to identify and exploit the richness of a broad skills base and to foster robust discussions without allowing them to descend into bitter reproach and negative outcomes.

Commitment to a shared vision
Especially in firms where the major players think and act differently and where the distinctive character types can potentially be toxic to each other, it is vital to share focus on what unites rather than divides. Whilst it is often extremely demanding to achieve a shared vision where entirely different aspirations and outlooks exist, the challenge for the managing partner is to coordinate ideas and options and to help the firm arrive at a powerful agreed strategy. The plan needs to be more than just a weak compromise between neutered viewpoints but one where multiple perspectives enable the firm to take account of strategic contingencies, to exploit a wide range of competitive weapons and to embrace flexibility, forward thinking and new ways of doing business. Commitment can then be achieved by framing decisions and actions within the shared vision.

Engender mutual respect
The professional management of human resources, information technology, finance, marketing and knowledge management all require different skill sets and the functions are often performed in silos with little inter-team communication. Lawyers employed in different parts of the firm often think and act in different ways in accordance with their skill discipline and client type. In addition, results-driven partners often have wholly different attitude to life-stylers and those of a more academic disposition. I am also often horrified to learn how little members of a firm appear to know about each other’s functions, skills, clients and current engagements. In short there are huge opportunities for mutual denigration and disrespect which are sadly seen in some firms. In such situations, it is important for managing partners to set high quality standards and to show consistent but fair intolerance to issues of underperformance. If this is done, it is then it becomes an easier task for the managing partner to recognise and build mutual respect of skills, function and cognitive style. The encouragement of dialogue and communication between teams and team members almost always results in greater understanding of each other’s roles and in recognising and valuing each other’s contributions

Effective ways of resolving disagreements
Inevitably, healthy debate and tensions in a heterogeneous firm will lead to greater conflict and the opportunity for dispute than in a firm where everybody agrees with each other most of the time. It is easier for a managing partner to defuse arguments or resolve disputes if he or she has first developed a good working relationship with each of the main players. Diplomatic and peace-making skills are of course a necessary part of every managing partner’s armoury. One issue is that dispute resolution processes can be hugely time-consuming – sometimes out of all proportion to the importance of the immediate subject matter of the dispute. The managing partner must therefore attempt to ensure that the long term benefits of enabling respectful but robust interaction in groups (as they mature) outweigh the short term negative effects of contentious incidents. Ultimately, the managing partner must have the credibility and authority to exercise casting votes where seemingly irreconcilable positions have been taken.

Firms where the members are effectively clones of each other can often be blinkered, unimaginative and stuck in their traditional operating modes. Conversely, a ‘marriage of opposites’ can obviously result in irretrievable conflict and failure, but can often also prove to be dynamic, broad thinking and entrepreneurial. In a fast changing world, there is a high premium on the ability to generate novel and multiple solutions, as well as the capability to adapt, and it so happens that these capabilities are more often to be found in heterogeneous firms than firms exhibiting established and cosy consensus

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Managing Partner and is reproduced with their permission