chapter  6
The paradox of cooperation and competition: conflict and the necessary politics of organizational life
Pages 23

Managers spend a great deal of their time dealing with uncertainty, moderating differences, negotiating and responding to the unexpected. There are often conflicting demands and points of view about what is important and how it should be dealt with. However, you would be hard pushed to find much of this reflected in the majority management literature, except in writing which argues that conflict happens in organizations but that it, too, can be managed and harnessed to the good. This is in keeping with the general claim that most areas of human experience can be managed (projects, time, risk, anger) so orthodox organizational literature offers a variety of tools and techniques to identify, analyse and treat organizational conflict so that it is harnessed towards increasing organizational performance. In this chapter I investigate this last thread of organizational theory more thor-

oughly to argue that there is no standing back from the hurly-burly of organizational life; rather, and perhaps counterintuitively, I suggest that the most productive way of dealing with it is to participate in organizational struggle as fully as possible. However, the appeal to the idea of a rational treatment of contested areas of life

is increasingly made in broader policy circles, in government and local government, say, where ministers of officials stake a claim for the legitimacy of what they are doing in the name of science or research. There is something instinctively convincing about it. The appeal to reason is based on the idea that ‘the data speak for themselves’ and point in only one direction, the direction the particular minister or official has already chosen. I am not in any way trying to imply that politicians or managers should ignore evidence or data, merely that all research comes with assumptions, may answer some questions but raise others, and is unlikely to say anything about what should be done as a result of the research. In any situation where there are competing goods with no obvious way of sifting or choosing between them, the way forward is likely to be contested. Finding ways to explore these competing conceptions of the good is at the heart of organizational life and

life in general. Staking a claim to the moral high ground of truth based on ‘evidence’ is certainly one way of championing a position, but is one which is aimed at silencing alternative opinions, rather than opening them up. In this chapter I explore what I understand to be the inevitably conflictual process

of engagement which arises between people trying to get things done together and which turns on the paradox of cooperation and competition. It is part of the complex responsive processes of human relating. In other words, most people are trying to contribute to the broader undertaking of which they are part and to see their organization succeed and thrive; they are part of one organization with their colleagues to which their success is bound. At the same time they are interested in what they are doing at work, they want to succeed personally, and they strive for recognition and status. Agreement on how to help the organization prosper will always be a matter of

contestation, and contestation with the self, involving the exploration of different conceptions of the good, and a discussion of ends as well as means. Drawing on Elias, Mead, Mannheim and other sociologists who have developed insights into conflict, I discuss the functional importance of conflict. Additionally, I draw on some psychoanalytic literature to see what that offers to the discussion.