Page last updated at 10:11 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 11:11 UK

Can a blazing row at work be productive?

Office fight

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

An almighty row in the workplace could help creative thinking if properly managed, according to new research. So does a consensual attitude strangle what you're trying to achieve?

If you are reading this at work, look around you. Is there anyone you really want to shout at? Now could be your chance to do so, safe in the knowledge that it's good for dealing with the task at hand.

New research suggests that companies would prosper by encouraging a robust exchange of ideas, even if this descends into a heated argument, because in this way policy and vision are constantly innovated and improved.

This has clearly been dreamt up by people who are in control of their thinking, their bodies and their emotions, but the rest of the world is not so angelic
Judi James
Workplace psychologist

So while a row should never be personal, having the odd shout at a colleague about work could be advantageous.

"Great strategy emerges when people are encouraged to challenge the status quo, ask awkward questions and examine 'sacred cows'," says a report by strategy consultants Cognosis, based on a survey of more than 1,000 executives from across the business world.

If conflict is well managed then it can nurture creativity because a "Darwinian struggle of ideas" means the best win out, says Cognosis managing director Richard Brown.

Verbal attacks

"Heated debate can trigger creative or intuitive breakthroughs but needs to be handled very carefully. It helps if the team has previously built an environment of mutual respect, support and trust, and has agreed some clear ground rules for managing heated conflict.

"Voices may become raised and discussion heated, but people need to be aware of and manage their and the team's emotions."

Direct, assertive, high-energy exchanges can trigger breakthrough thinking
No personal agendas
Listen, ask 'why', try to understand other viewpoints
Use open and encouraging body language, not defensive or closed
Raised voices may be OK but keep tone civil
Don't think winners/losers, explore ideas to co-create winners/winners
Ensure there's an agreed deadline for resolution
Source: Cognosis

It should never descend to personal verbal attacks, the pursuit of partisan or personal agendas or questioning other team members' integrity, he says. These trigger what he describes as a "doom loop of dysfunctional debate".

"Debates should be resolved in the meeting, not left 'hanging' or taken outside the meeting," he adds. "It surely goes without saying that abuse, whether verbal or physical should never be part of the process."

And heated arguments should be behind closed doors so as not to disrupt the office. Emotional outbursts damage morale and increase stress.

"Followers expect their leaders to have and show emotional intelligence, and sudden outbursts demonstrate precisely the opposite - they're interpreted as a lack of emotional control and undercut respect," he says.

Dead wood

So what conclusion, in a nutshell, is all this research and analysis driving at?

"It's simple - a good row can clear the air," says Lindsay Burke, business development manager with Cognosis. "If you actively encourage challenge people become comfortable with it and can make better decisions."

Office fight
Is this man getting his point across?

Too few businesses encourage a healthy questioning of policy and vision, says Mr Brown. People are not given sufficient permission to challenge their bosses, and when they do it is often seen as a criticism and something to be controlled.

"Very often what looks like harmony is just passive acceptance, with people feeling that they don't have a say in discussions that generated this course of action.

"They think 'I just have to get my head down and get on with it.' That's not very motivating."

Viewers of BBC One's The Apprentice will be familiar with the shouting matches that characterise the show, as candidates go into meltdown in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of completing business-related tasks under the watchful eyes of Sir Alan Sugar and his helpers.

'Not my style'

Michelle Dewberry, who won the show in 2006, says it wasn't a tactic she ever employed.

"Maybe I stood out from my Apprentice colleagues because they were too concerned with argument and not doing the job and that's not a good place to be," she says.

"There were occasions when people did shout and scream but I don't think anything productive ever came out of it. It wasn't my style then and it isn't my style now."

Michelle Dewberry
There were occasions when people did shout and scream but I don't think anything productive ever came out of it
Michelle Dewberry recalls her time on The Apprentice

Although Sir Alan comes across as the kind of boss who would not take kindly to having his authority challenged, Ms Dewberry says that while working for him he was very receptive to new ideas from staff. It's the kind of attitude she has tried to foster as she runs both her own consultancy and a new money-saving website for women called Chiconomise.

"You should always challenge people if you have a view opposite to them, but you should do it in a constructive way. I would never shout at anyone at work and I wouldn't expect anyone else to do it."

People need to challenge ideas more but it should never get more heated than a rational argument, says Judi James, who trains businesses in conflict management.


"If you encourage people to have rows, at what point do you bring in a team of people to stop them committing acts of violence against each other?

"This has clearly been dreamt up by people who are in control of their thinking, their bodies and their emotions, but the rest of the world is not so angelic."

She can't stand the atmosphere after a row, she says. Some people think it clears the air but many people will go home licking their wounds and being upset.

Office fight
Getting up close is always inadvisable

However, we should be asking "why" a lot more in business, she says. The MPs' expenses scandal and the banking crisis should have empowered people to feel they have the right to question long-held assumptions.

"Business has a lot of dead wood that people don't challenge, instead saying 'this is the way we've always done it' and people are cloned to think like that," she says.

"People suck up to the boss and won't say what they think. But there's a difference between saying what you think and shouting and getting into a row.

"Once you get into a 'toe-to-toe', it creates more entrenched ideas. The chances of people changing their minds diminishes as the shouting gets louder."

Below is a selection of your comments.

This needs to be clearly aimed at bosses, not employees. In every single case in my experience, those who challenged the boss, or their ideas, even in a non-confrontational way, got fired. And while it may not be great to suck up to your boss, at least you get to keep your job, and for many people a job not done to it's best is still better than no job at all.
Rob, London, UK

Please explain this to ALL politicians
Dave, Bournemouth

If you can argue logically and without bringing personal feeling into it (and I've seen few who can in a workplace setting, too many egos and inner neediness)why is there any need to get heated and raise your voice? It's when people keep repeating the same non point over and over again or get personal or don't listen or don't argue properly in some other way that it becomes pointless and frustrating. My collegues and I have had many a lively, to say the least, debate on how to accomplish a team goal. Although we have disected, attacked and nit-picked the content of each others ideas we have never attacked each other. As a result the team has always reached the best method of reaching the goal.
Nickolo, UK

Sounds like a charter for workplace bullies, to me.
Mike Thompson, London

I know from being a manager one of the most important attributes in someone who reports to you is someone who does what you request - willingly. I am now in the situation of reporting to a manager who never asks one's opinion on decisions but I will never challenge them otherwise one will get fired. I guess that most people in a similar position will take the easy route and not argue back to one's boss as protecting one's job and income is vital in these uncertain times. If the boss asks you 'What do you think ?' then respond, but to openly challenge one's boss's opinion or decision, is pretty suicidal.
John Hall, London UK

People can end up raising their voices for numerous reasons but, if there is aggression behind it then, I'll only put up with it if, I'm at fault. Any other time, I'll usually just switch off or walk away because, otherwise I'd probably end up losing my job. As far as I am concerned, it is unprofessional, particularly for someone in a position of authority, to use aggression as a method of getting results and I'll just lose respect for anyone who does. I'm never quite sure why but, I've never had any trouble with people whom I've been informed are rude and aggressive, they've never been rude and aggressive to me.
Steven, Faversham

In my experience it ends up that the boss always comes out on top as they will not like being challenged in a non-confrontational way, never mind in an argument, even with best intentions in mind. Best to say nothing and keep your job than to rock the boat and be accused of being a trouble maker.
Lesley , Southampton

From the previous comments I get the feeling that challenging the manager's opinion is very likely to get you fired, which surprises me, to say the least. I am just moving to the UK and maybe this is a part of the culture shock I am about to experience. During my career as a manager I have always been delighted to see my points challenged, but of course not in an overly insisting way that would undermine my authority. And I think the same applies to many people here. Further, I have never heard of someone being fired for that. Maybe this is just a part of the eastern European business culture.
Stefan Kiryazov, Sofia, Bulgaria

Any team of people needs a leader to give them direction. A manager should invite views, decide on the best, create a vision and then lead and direct people to bring the vision to reality. Nothing would ever get done if there was constant challenge to leadership and its focus. As for shouting and yelling, there are far, far better ways to manage and focus constructive debate at the right time and in the right place without descending into a slanging match. The best leaders motivate because their team believes in them and their vision, not because they bully them into submission.
Hannah, Potters Bar, Herts.

In forty years of creative problem solving I've never seen a show of aggression get results. Personally I can handle unlimited amounts of things not going to plan. Once a person thinks that aggression will get results then I just switch off - and leave them to drown in their own mess.
ChrisJK, UK

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