Managing Conflict Between Bureaucratics and Interactives

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 55, No. 2 March-April, 2012 pp. 55-56

Imagine this scenario: The group you lead is facing a confl ict that threatens to undermine an important project for your company. You thought you had put together a team that was well balanced with talent and experience. But some staff members, mostly younger ones, are complaining that the company’s advancement policy isn’t fair because it’s not based on merit. People are promoted in steps based on experience. The complainers argue that experience is not necessarily correlated with contribution. Technology is constantly changing; experience developing older products can impede innovative thinking. Younger staff members say they know more about the latest technology than older staff members, including you. Yet their views are discounted. They say that if you want to keep them motivated, you should give them roles that match their knowledge and ability, where they have the opportunity to continue learning and developing their skills.

Other staff members, mostly older, say the complainers have an “entitlement mentality,” that the complainers want rewards and responsibilities without having worked for them. Although some of the younger staff members know more about the latest technology, they know less about the company’s products and customers. Also, to succeed in the company, you need good relationships with key people in other departments. And you won’t develop those relationships without loyalty and trust, qualities in short supply among the complainers.

Before reading further, ask yourself: How would you keep this conflict from heating up?

In leadership workshops, Tim Scudder and I (Maccoby and Scudder 2010, 2011) have given technology managers this challenge. But first, we’ve separated them into three groups on the basis of their answers to a questionnaire that elicits attitudes and values about work and leadership. The questionnaire is based on the theory that younger managers share a constellation of attitudes and values, a social character, different from that of the older group. Some observers, such as William Strauss and Neil Howe (2000), refer to the generation born between 1982 and the turn of the century as Millennials, and argue that these young people, some of whom are just entering the workforce, have attitudes to work shaped by their increased use of and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies. The results of my research (Maccoby 2007) suggest that this is insufficient: instead of categorizing people according to when they were born, we understand them better by viewing them in terms of a social character that is shaped by a particular socialization experience. That experience has been changing rapidly during the past fifty years.

In any culture, parents, teachers, and work organizations try to shape in young people a social character that equips them to succeed in that culture. However, in a time of rapid change, even people born in the same year can develop different social characters. And the last half of the twentieth century saw some of the most rapid and radical social and technological change in human history. Most of the older technical staff members were raised to adapt to and succeed in the industrial bureaucracies that dominated the economy of the twentieth century. Most grew up in families with a single male wage earner who became a model for paternal authority at work. Children in these families were brought up to idealize and please paternal authorities that could move them up bureaucratic hierarchies; they developed a bureaucratic social character.

In 1950, over 70 percent of families fit this model; in 1980, only 34 percent did, and the percentage was falling. Younger technical staff members were more likely raised in a family with two wage earners or even with a single female wage earner. (There are now as many families with a single female wage earner as there are traditional families.) Children in these families experience the shared authority of parents and other caregivers. Since parents were at work, these children learned at an early age to interact with and depend on other children for emotional support. This, combined with their familiarity with changing technology and early experience of networking on the Internet, shaped a social character that better equips them to succeed in a knowledge economy, an interactive social character.

In our workshops, Tim and I use this information to create three groups. One group is made up of participants whose responses to the questionnaire are consistent with the bureaucratic social character. Members of this group agree strongly with statements expressing a wish to work in an organization that values loyalty and experience, where their work allows autonomy, and the boss is like a good parent. Another group, made up of participants expressing an interactive social character, has members who agree strongly with statements that express a wish to work in a flatter, more collaborative organization. These interactives see themselves as free agents, and they want roles that improve their marketability so they can take advantage of better opportunities. They like the idea of working in a team where leadership shifts to the person with appropriate skills. And they prefer a leader who is a facilitator rather than a paternalistic boss. The third group is composed of participants whose responses demonstrate a mix of bureaucratic and interactive attitudes.

In the workshops, each group typically proposes solutions to the conflict that express their distinct attitudes. The bureaucratics usually want to educate the interactives about the importance of experience, loyalty, and trusting relationships. The groups with mixed responses state that the bureaucratics should become more interactive. Managers in this group report that the demands of knowledge work are pulling them to become more interactive. In a recent workshop, one manager from a pharmaceutical company estimated that 70 percent of their employees were now interactives. He said the company had to attract and retain talented free agents with this social character. If managers didn’t listen to and respond to their complaints, they’d lose valuable contributors.

Interactive groups tend to focus on changing the organization, not the people. They propose creating more collaborative organizations where people are placed in roles that fit their competencies and are evaluated and rewarded according to their contributions. They suggest designing effective processes to replace decision making based on hierarchical structures with decisions based on the best analysis.

The solutions offered by the three groups do not necessarily clash. There is something to be said for integrating each approach into a formula for preventing confl ict between social characters. Interactives should recognize the virtues of more experienced staff, just as bureaucratics should value the best qualities of interactives. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, has said that the concept of mentoring is misleading because it’s too one-sided (Grove 2011). At Intel, he looked for young technical and marketing stars to teach him. In return, he tutored them on strategy and showed them the importance of decisive leadership. Other top executives I’ve interviewed are also practicing this kind of joint mentoring.

My research shows that during the past ten years the percentage of interactives in technology companies has been increasing while the percentage of bureaucratics has been decreasing. This has both positive and negative implications for technology companies. On the positive side, interactives are more collaborative and open to continual change than bureaucratics. They question traditional products and practices, and they evaluate ideas according to their potential to add value. The negative side is their lack of loyalty, distrust of all authority, and overestimation of self, all of which threaten to fray the social fabric of the corporation.

How then can you prevent destructive conflict between social characters?

Facilitating opposition based on facts and experience is healthy for an organization. It can stimulate creative thinking. Conflict caused by questioning motives and wounding self-esteem becomes destructive. To accentuate the positives and dampen the negatives, you should first understand yourself and those you want to lead. If you are like many of the technology managers I’ve taught, you will recognize in yourself elements of bothsocial characters and the need to become more interactive. Bureaucratics typically want autonomy at work, but knowledge organizations require collaboration and partnering with different parts of the organization and with customers and suppliers.

To create willing collaboration and enthusiasm with a diverse group of people, you should articulate and practice a leadership philosophy that all team members can embrace. It should clarify the purpose of your organization or project in terms that are meaningful to everyone. When there is no meaningful shared purpose, people will pursue their own goals. You should clarify the practical values and processes essential to achieve that shared purpose, including how people will interact. You should also describe the ethical and moral reasoning you’ll employ in making decisions. Will decisions be made just in terms of what is good for the company? Or will you consider the impact of decisions on customers, employees, communities, and the environment?

Finally, you should clarify how you will measure results and how staff will be evaluated. Once the purpose, values, and rules of the game are defi ned, a key to good leadership is placing people in the right roles and managing the interactions to achieve the purpose. Talented interactives willingly follow this kind of leadership. Someday, they may leave for more attractive opportunities, but while they are with you, they’ll be valuable collaborators.


Grove , A. 2011. How to be a mentor. Bloomberg Businessweek, September 26. (accessed December 21, 2011).

Maccoby, M. 2007. The Leaders We Need and What Makes Us Follow. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Maccoby, M., and Scudder, T. 2010. Becoming a Leader We Need with Strategic Intelligence. Carlsbad, CA: Personal Strengths Publishing.

Maccoby, M., and Scudder, T. 2011. Leading in the heat of conflict. T + D 65 ( 12 ):44 – 51.

Strauss, W., and Howe, N. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Revolution. New York: Vintage Books.

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