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Time to toughen up and embrace the joys of conflict
By Stefan Stern Published: January 15 2008 02:00 | Last updated: January 15 2008 02:00

OK, so it was early in the morning and they were very busy and I probably was in the way and perhaps the woman in question was having a bad day, but did she really have to shout at me like that? I should explain. On the way to work most mornings, I stop off for a fix of strong coffee from one of London's finest outlets. The queue that forms here is a good indicator of the quality of the product. Unfortunately, the queuing system at said outlet can be a little confusing, which leads to a very un-British situation - an undisciplined queue - with some customers literally not knowing where they stand. On the day of the shouting incident, however, I cannot claim to have been confused. I was merely loitering aimlessly, checking for messages on my mobile phone. (There weren't any.) "Move!" cried the agitated staff member, who had been standing (for how long?) right behind me. Looking up, I was shocked to see that the shouter in question was the same staff member at whom I had smiled sweetly only moments earlier, and from whom I had won a curt but unmistakeable smile in return. I slouched off to work, my morning (or at least the first part of it) ruined. Good thing I don't work in investment banking, or anywhere else where there is a lot of shouting. Bollockings - which I never forget - don't bring out the best in me. One of my first assignments as a young reporter was to Wall Street, where I foolishly presented two aggressive corporate financiers with a slightly out -of-date league table, which did not accurately reflect their firm's performance. I think people could hear the screaming (theirs, I mean) on Staten Island. Having pulled myself together after the attack of the angry barista, I picked up the latest copy of FTfm, this newspaper's special supplement for fund managers, and read about the startling management philosophy of Ray Dalio, founder of the hugely successful hedge fund manager Bridgewater Associates. "I'll do whatever it takes to make the company great," Mr Dalio declares on the company website. "This brings me to the subject of conflict," he adds. "Conflict in the pursuit of excellence is a terrific thing and is strongly encouraged, in fact demanded. If you are thin-skinned and don't like conflict or criticism, you should be somewhere else." In fairness to Mr Dalio, he explains that he does not seek gratuitous bust-ups, but rather coolly objective discussions about the right way to proceed. He loathes hierarchy, discouraging "superiors" from ever using their rank to win an argument. Not everyone enjoys this culture, though. Britt Harris lasted only five months as Bridgewater's chief executive in 2005. In saluting the use of conflict, Mr Dalio is echoing the views of Peter Drucker, as set out in his 1966 book The Effective Executive . Here Drucker argues that the best decisions emerge from the battle between "divergent opinions", and out of "the serious consideration of competing alternatives". We should beware the cosiness of the country club, Drucker implies. "Decisions of the kind the executive has to make are not made well by acclamation . . . They are made well only if based on the clash of conflicting views . . . The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement." I predict that this year there will be a surge in popularity for the ideas espoused by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their post "new economy" backlash classic, Execution (2002). Turning back to this primer on ultra robust management, you find page after page of praise for tough, no-nonsense communication. "You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of business," Bossidy and Charan write, "the kind that can leave people feeling bruised if they take it personally." This sort of talk is "live ammo", the authors say approvingly. "A good motto to observe is: 'Truth over harmony'," they say. We should avoid dialogue that is "stilted, politicised, fragmented, butt-covering . . . Candour helps wipe out the silent lies and pocket vetoes, and it prevents the stalled initiatives and 'rework' that drain energy."

So instead of getting upset by that outburst at the coffee shop, I should in fact have been grateful to my accuser. Indeed, she is clearly not one to bear grudges, as she smiled at me again a few days later, and remembered my preferred order. A thick skin is vital for success in most areas of life. If I still betray a degree of over-sensitivity, I can hardly, as you might think I would, blame my parents. They gave me a copy of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses at an early age. Here you can read about Lord Lundy, "who was too freely moved to tears, and thereby ruined his political career". Lundy suffers an abysmal fate. He is sent to be governor of New South Wales. No, the message is: toughen up, say what you mean, mean what you say, focus on the "what" and not the "who", and don't take it all too personally. And, if you don't like that advice, you know what you can do.

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