WirtschaftsWoche: Mr. Sprenger, do you like to argue?

This article comes from the "WirtschaftsWoche".

Reinhard Sprenger: It depends on what you mean by arguing. When it comes to broadening my range of vision, getting to know others with their experiences, that is, being curious, greedy for new things, I like to argue. But if you mean being right and defending your own past, I don't enjoy it. I find it boring to reinforce what I already believe. And also by people I already know. A kingdom for a fresh thought! But that only applies to necessary conflicts, not to unnecessary ones.

WirtschaftsWoche: You recently published a book that emphasizes the productive nature of such "necessary" conflicts - and the devastation it can leave, which such conflicts are hushed up. Do you see yourself confirmed by the current Wirecard case?

Sprenger: I can't judge that from the outside. In the Wirecard case, it does not seem to me to be silent about ambiguities, but first of all to be clear and deliberate misleading. However, it is not unlikely that the supervisory bodies would have fallen into the pseudo-solidarity trap afterwards. Together with group loyalty, it acts like an implicit silence agreement. It prevents confrontation and the questioning of critical questions. All of this is due to the usual conflict demonization. 

WirtschaftsWoche: But how do you recognize which "necessary" conflicts are worth resolving? Isn't there also the danger of opening an ultimately unsolvable conflict that will paralyze the whole company?

Sprenger: Yes, the spontaneous reaction of anger often blurs the difference. But the course of a conflict is not without alternative. It can be interrupted. You can pause, take breaks to think, open the tunnel view, start again. The attitude is helpful: "This is your world, this is my world, what separates, but what also connects us?" You have to have something in common to experience something as separating. Whatever that is: common time, common goal, also the agreement that you have a problem and an interest in getting it out of the way. The goal is often enough to understand each other better. And that in no way means being in agreement. This common ground can be a good basis for dealing constructively with a conflict. The conflict therefore always includes dissent as well as consensus.

WirtschaftsWoche: However, it sounds as if this productive force of the conflict would only set in when you finally made love again. But do conflicts not always threaten to open wounds or to renew prejudices that were actually overcome? Are there rules of conduct that can be used to keep a conflict in check?

Sprenger: It's not about loving, it's about going on together. Especially when you don't love each other, but need each other. Then the conflict itself is not the evil, but the way of dealing with it. Precisely because one did not understand the productive nature of the conflict. Rules of conduct do not help. Rather, it is about the insight that all things in life are ambiguous, that both are always right, that the alternative view is enriching and that victory in the company is always a defeat for the company as a cooperation arena.

WirtschaftsWoche: It sounds plausible that in this way you can gain knowledge from conflicts and broaden your horizons. But conflicts usually have a different purpose in companies: power structures are clarified and decisions made. Isn't ambiguity the last thing you can use?

Sprenger: You can't get out of the ambiguities. Every decision pacifies a conflict of objectives only briefly, sometimes only for weeks in volatile markets. Then the topic is on resubmission. It's about being undetermined as a principle of survival. It is about constant balancing, about balancing appropriateness, about everything until further notice. This pendulum is the elasticity that keeps the bamboo stable as well as a company. Companies are commuting events. Commuting creates stability in change.  

WirtschaftsWoche: That would mean more: Employees and shareholders should allow their company bosses to change their mind over time and not interpret it as a lack of consequence. And vice versa: Those who demand absolute loyalty from their employees to applicable strategies only suppress the necessary debates - and miss the next swing of the pendulum.   

Sprenger: So it is. Unity stiffens. And homogenization pressure makes a company tight. It will only be sustainable if the ambivalence is constantly dealt with. Especially in turbulent times, a high tolerance for ambiguities is required. It is therefore important to moderate the different rationalities in the company. Production has a different logic than sales, controlling different from marketing, research and development different from the works council. They are all important for the survival of the whole, no subsystem may dominate the others. Successful executives always manage to overcome one-sided justice. In this respect, they are contradictory artists.

WirtschaftsWoche: And who are the talented representatives of this discipline? Can you name companies that can be used to understand how they have made better decisions as a result of conflict?

Sprenger: I can currently think of Hornbach. The hardware store has been dealing with conflicts such as central / decentralized, internal orientation / customer focus and external control / personal responsibility for several years. That makes the company very smart and prudent. The first successes of the new balances were then achieved in the corona crisis. Entrepreneurial thinking and acting were suddenly no longer empty words, but necessary, there was a need to turn. Hornbach was well prepared for this. That was the good in the bad.

WirtschaftsWoche: That probably doesn't apply to the meat company Tönnies. If the nephew publicly requests the uncle to resign, the escalation has probably progressed too far. How do you deal with such cases in general, can escalations be captured on a personal level? Or is it time to get around conflicts better so as not to block yourself? 

Sprenger: Avoiding conflict is not an option. It takes revenge later. Then old anger is presented and that always reveals a management failure. No, when conflicts escalate, they are relationship conflicts. Basically there are no material conflicts at all, only relationship conflicts. Then you could agree, but you don't want it anymore. That seems like a big minus before every factual question. In these cases, conflict resolution means "breaking away from the conflict". There are several options for this. However, this is particularly difficult in family businesses. The game is infinite there, you can't deselect the family, you always have them. That is why chronified disputes are the greatest value destroyers there. For example, when old family issues keep coming up, fraternal rivalries, tensions between parents and children. In the family system, the primary currency is not money, but love - love for family members, for the great company history, for certain products. Then you sit in a paradoxical love trap. Business administration and feudalism have never been compatible. This also applies to state feudalism.