Well I guess that title is a bit of a challenge. Surely conflict doesn’t make people happy? Psychology is making great strides in understanding happiness after the pioneering work of Martin Seligman. Personally, I like and recommend the work of Jonathan Haidt and his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’. I guess my challenge to you about conflict is to suggest that a successful outcome in conflict should make us happy.
Now if by that you think it means ‘winning’ the conflict, I am not sure I agree. Happiness research suggests that even in competitive sports, it is the game that counts and success can be anti-climatic. Fierce competitiveness can be a displacement activity for the unhappy some of the time. And just to be really provocative: I think Ohio and Michigan; Arsenal and Chelsea are all fantastic teams!
At a societal level, the really productive conflicts are non-zero not win-lose squabbles. Manufacturing business has much competition but it basically creates a huge value add over and above competition. Whereas much of the Financial world as we have recently seen to our cost is more like a casino: where apart from the house/banks always winning because it plays with other peoples’ money, my loss is your gain.
So in our personal conflicts, to help make us happy we should try to find non-zero outcomes: not fighting over a limited cake but growing the cake creatively so there is more to go round.
And one of the things that makes us happy is fairness. There is a psychological experiment called the Ultimatum Game. The person conducting the experiment as a $100 in notes and two subjects: he offers the first subject the opportunity to decide how much of the $100 they take and how much is left for the other person; and the second person then decides to accept the split. If they do not accept the split, neither gets anything. So what do you do? Economic theory says something is better than nothing, so most people who have done economics offer say $90 to me, $10 to the other. Guess what: the overwhelming majority of second subjects reject this, even though they are losing $10. Indeed offering much less than 65-35 spit almost guarantees rejection. So what is going on? We value fairness in itself and punish the unfair even at cost to ourselves. We are wired to retaliate in such situations because as a social species we cannot survive with anti-social behavior.
This is a critical lesson in conflict, especially if you are going to be in continuing relationship with others. I once warned a key segment of my workforce: you have power to hurt us greatly, cost us maybe $45 million a day; and therefore we will always listen intently to you and treat you fairly; but if you ever use that power and really damage us, we will give in. But equally, you know that at some stage when we have power during a market down turn, you will pay the price and we will destroy you. The union guy later and in private smiled and said: ‘You are the first person to realize this, and I think we can always do business with you. And you will not need to destroy us if you treat us fairly.’ It was only under a successor that they did the destroying.
More on this topic in future postings.