Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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In praise of conflict

Q: Can people who disagree with each other -- who pale at even compromising with each other -- come up with and execute a successful game plan? (Any resemblance to the new Congress is strictly (un)coincidental ...) If you've ever worked in such a heated atmosphere, what was the outcome? Is this a recipe for a lose-lose scenario, or might a surprise be in the offing?


Bitter enemies have populated governments since Julius Caesar's dying gasp, "Et tu, Brute?" whispered as he crashed onto the marble floor of the Forum, murdered by his best friend Brutus and other Roman senators. While the only blood on today's Senate or House floors is metaphorical, enough bad blood has been spilled at the U.S. Capitol over the years to fill the Tidal Basin.

In the late 1700s, as the new American nation came together out of 13 disparate and fractious colonies, after they agreed on one thing --- the need to throw out the Brits --- the arguments and outright hostilities among famous Founders was legendary, with the strong-government Federalists battling the states-rights Republicans, Adams v. Jefferson, Madison v. Hamilton, and everyone wondering what Ben Franklin was really up to in France.

Hamilton and Burr wound up having a shooting match -- a duel that cost Hamilton his life and Burr his reputation.

Few people can say that they are 100 percent happy with all the people in their places of work. As an employer, I know that conflict among co-workers can be one of the greatest sources of corporate dysfunction and personnel turnover. Even now, I can still be amazed at the layers of personal animosity that human beings display in their professional lives.

Of course, professional incivility is encouraged and even promoted by the current state of political discourse. How can we teach young professionals how to work through conflict when they can see and hear certain politicians or pundits committing outrageous defamation of their opponents every day?

The reality is that the "bitter enmity" of politicians is about as real as a WWF show. Throwing and taking fake punches is part of the entertainment. Around Washington, it's not uncommon to see members of Congress ripping each other on the news and then having cocktails together at a local restaurant. It's really no different than Redskins and Cowboys rolling around in the mud and then quaffing beers after the game.

College presidents are more like politicians than most workers, and so we have people in our circles who really dislike us -- and, truth be told, we really dislike some of them -- and we have fans and supporters. It's all part of the job. I have learned that I cannot be successful if I spend a lot of time thinking about likes and dislikes. I have to work with everyone regardless of personal feelings.

I once had to work on a project with another college president who was very hostile toward me for reasons I will never understand. Everyone in our larger circle knew of this antipathy between us, but when a certain project came along, it turned out that both of us had the right skill sets to lead the team together.

For several weeks, we met often, we focused on creating an exceptional result, and the project turned out to be quite successful. Along the way, while we never became best friends, the experience of working together closely on a project of great importance led each of us to come to a new level of respect for our respective talents.

Conflict can generate great results if the sparks are sufficiently contained to avoid a wildfire. Now that the House of Representatives has changed its political balance, the opportunity to use political tension to create even better legislation is clear. The country will expect the leaders on both sides to find ways to work past their obvious conflicts to solutions that will be successful for the people -- ultimately, it's not about Boehner or Pelosi or Obama or McConnell or Palin or Reid winning or losing elections.

The ultimate success of government is in whether it provides the laws and policies necessary for the people of the nation to be successful.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 8, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and adversity Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Harmony is overrated | Next: The Civility War

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I run a humble sharpening service. Keep fighting with your wife, you fought for her.

Posted by: jobandon | November 8, 2010 10:04 AM
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While you make a strong argument you overlook a key factor which exists in political life which precludes collegiality. That is the re-electability factor. When you believe that your point of view must prevail or else you're out of a job that circumstance is very different from the one you describe working with a colleague on a project of mutual interest. Neither one of you was at risk.

Posted by: enid2 | November 8, 2010 8:15 AM
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