Creating chaos/conflict as a management style

I’m wondering if any Dopers have worked for a boss who (by his/her own admission) deliberately created conflict among staff members and claimed to thrive on chaos, believing, as the President claims to, that this is the best way to arrive at good solutions and outcomes?

As a freelancer for almost 40 years, I worked with at least 30 different non-profit organizations. My way of working was to go into the office every week for a whole or half day (or more) with my own computer, so I was in a position to observe many different types of Executive Directors and the work cultures they created. I worked for each organization for a few months, to several years, up to 13 years for three of them.

I can only think of one Executive Director who was such an excellent manager that things really got done, and I perceived very little tension/disgruntlement among the staff. I’ve worked with several EDs who didn’t get anything done at all. One of them went out to breakfast and lunch every single day (on the company dime), but otherwise did no work. Another boss didn’t accomplish anything, but every week when I went in, she had completely rearranged the furniture, so I guess that was her contribution. I’ve worked with some who were great, but were not appreciated and got micromanaged right out of the place.

I think managers should encourage questions, challenges, and good discussion. That is productive. That is not chaos for its own sake.

I’ve never worked for/with anyone who set the staff against each other, encouraged conflict like gladiators (or dogs), and then just sat and watched. I’ve certainly observed staffs that were permeated with resentment and discontent, and even ones that had a revolving door. But I’ve never met a manager, however inept, who claimed that sowing discord and conflict was the best way to accomplish the mission

I have virtually no experience in profit-making corporations, and none in government or public services. Has anyone worked under a manager who promoted the Chaos Theory of Management?

I worked for one boss at a major company who had 16 people on his staff when I came. When I left, 15 months later, 14 of them were gone, beating even Trump for turnover. He was an asshole, and while he didn’t deliberately foster turnover, all of our areas were naturally at odds with the other areas, and he never did anything that would let us make globally optimized decisions as a team.
The larger project was a mess also, and a multi-billion dollar disaster, but he did his bit to make it fail.

I’m not sure he ever thought enough about management style to say he deliberately fostered conflict, though.

FDR famously ran his White House staff in that way.

Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is an adequate example of someone using this as a management style.


I worked for a guy who was paranoid and felt that if he stirred the pot enough people would tell him everything. I was his foreman and he would tell me everything the guys under me were saying about me. I would always reply that it just goes with the job. If I were to voice a minor complaint about one of the employees he would call them aside and tell them I was after them. He ended up getting promoted and then getting fired shortly after his promotion.

It’s pretty clear that Trump–as president–doesn’t really do this to arrive at good solutions, but simply because he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, he doesn’t have any ideas of his own, and his base is idiotic enough to believe that it’s some kind of “strategy.” It also gives him someone to blame whenever something goes wrong. It has nothing to do with real chaos theory.

I have not directly experienced that, but know people who have. However, I do have colleagues who- while not managers- exhibit similar behaviors. e.g. coming up with a device/system specification which is so ridiculously convoluted and inscrutable it takes an eternity to figure out.

people like that- as well as managers who create chaos- are simply protecting their own asses. The person I describe above clearly (IMO) does things that way because in his mind, so long as he’s the only one who can understand his specs, he can’t be moved elsewhere or let go. Same with chaotic managers; they mess everything up constantly so they can be the hero when they “fix” the problem they created.

What’s unfortunate is how well it works.

I have met management ‘by crowd-surfing’; the boss announcing a new product proposal with scant forethought, consultation or research then metaphorically throwing himself from that ‘stage’ into the arms of his staff, who, of course, move heaven and earth to save him (and the company and their jobs) from crashing to the floor. Over and over I saw this, and although people bemoaned the stress and tension, they got enough good vibes from rescuing him (from himself) to get them through. Next time he jumped, of course, everyone stepped in to catch him with a will…

No-one asked ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ (maybe like saving millions on each product release?)
I was impressed that new staff, unfamiliar with this behaviour, also stepped up to help, like security guys at a concert.

The money ran out of course, but just before that he sold the company in a ‘smoke and mirrors’ operation to a corporation with even less sense.
So the worst you could say about that strategy is that it was wasteful :slight_smile:

At the university level, I once had a dean whose philosophy was to not renew the contract (a.k.a. fire) a high percentage of the junior faculty in order to improve the quality somehow. Regardless of how good most of the fired people were. Plus a lot of other similar “management” tactics.

The turnover ended up being a lot higher than his goal since good people said “Forget this.” and left on their own.

We’d hire 4 people in a year for our department and end up still losing net people. Word got out. I’d be asked about what the bleep was going on when I’d visit people on the opposite coast. That made hiring more difficult.

It was basically complete chaos. Things got better when he wasn’t our dean anymore. Then he died. Certain senior people were expected to go to his memorial service. Lots of groaning about that.

Retail management is – or was – rife with these types at one point.

As I understood it, riling the troops = creating competition = more productivity since the manager is/was pitting everybody against each other.

I had one manager who was very gifted at this. His riling was so subtle that there was never any uproar. Under him we had the highest-grossing department within our division in the entire chain.

Managers with less finesse end(ed) up either getting fired or leaving because they took what was once a great department with good workers and made them paranoid. It’s happening right now in my old department, and it has less to do with chaos theory and more to do with the manager’s anxiety issues.

The managers I’ve worked for that fomented chaos amongst the workforce did so to cover their own asses and create scapegoats for their own failings.

It is certainly possible to encourage constructive competition and contention in your staff in order to get a good long-term outcome but it requires being a really good manager, not just an asshole who likes to stir the shit.

Really? I didn’t know that.

That’s just the way he rolled.

I hadn’t heard that, either.

ETA: From here

ISTR that Sears CEO Eddie Lampert uses this management style, and I think there was a thread here about it a while back. But I can’t find a cite at the moment.

He’d give his aides conflicting assignments, go around them to get information from other sources, stuff like that. Some commentary I’ve read has cast it as him not wanting aides to grow their own power bases. Lack of trust.

The majority of managers I’ve worked for have done the same (cover their own failings by blaming others). It wasn’t deliberate per the OP (and Trump), because the people I worked for would never admit to it (because that would make them look weak), but believe me, they did it.

It’s because of that style of management I now suffer from “workplace PTSD,” which may not be a recognized form according to the DSM V, but in practicality, it’s real. It’s otherwise known as a toxic work environment, and being bullied.

Managers who practice “chaos theory” do much more harm than good.

Yet another similarity* between FDR and Hitler. Old Adolph was infamous for creating chaos among his top people: creating overlapping jurisdictions, promoting rivalries, etc.

  • Became leader of their countries in 1933 and died in 1945. Would have been the same month even for each except in 1933 US inaugurations were in March.

Excuse me, there’s someone named “Godwin” banging at my door …

I had a couple jobs where I worked a “try-out” day, and the manager was like Trump. I walked out of both. I don’t need that kind of poison.

It also plays well with a “reality TV” management team where the goal is audience entertainment from the chaos and drama of the team, not the team actually accomplishing anything meaningful.
I’ve heard that companies like Amazon and Netflix have environments where employees are encouraged to constantly challenge each other. Done correctly, I imagine it could be a good way to avoid stagnation and foster constant improvement. Done poorly, I imagine that it could create an extremely toxic environment. Or both, depending on your perspective.
As a professional manager and management consultant, I hold an MBA, a Project Management Professional cert from the Project Management Institute, have spent 20 years working and consulting for the Fortune 500, Wall Street investment banks, Silicon Valley tech companies and the Big 4. Even a few government agencies. I try to keep abreast of management trends and styles as much as I can. Nowhere have I encountered anything that leads me to believe “creating internal chaos and conflict” is considered to be a legitimate leadership or management style. Endeavors may succeed IN SPITE of such a style, not because of it.

Think about it.

Is a team more effective when it’s members openly share information or when they withhold it for fear that any information they provide can be used against them?

Does a sales team sell more when its members backstab and undercut each other or when they work together (or at least don’t work cross purposes). If you were a customer, what would you think if several different sales people from the same company approached you in an apparently uncoordinated (or worse, conflicting) manner?

What complex enterprise or initiative works better when each function pursues its own interests, independent of the whole?

What company benefits from a high turnover of disgruntled employees?
Which is not to say some level of competition isn’t good. Sales, for example, could benefit from a system that rewards performance.
The “chaos/conflict” management style is a self-serving strategy that is favorable to narcissistic assholes and morons. It creates enough noise and distraction to provide an illusion of activity. It’s also appealing to people who want carte blanche to treat others as shitty as possible

When I was at Intel every person took a class on the creative use of conflict. The important part of that class was when to end the conflict - through what they called disagree and commit.