In numerous ways, New York Times columnist David Brooks currently may be adding more to the body of science supporting the work of conflict management than any other thinker or writer. As evidenced by his recent tour d’force “fictional non-fiction” work, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, Brooks has compiled an exhaustive compendium of inter-disciplinary work product which informs the work dispute resolvers, conflict managers and problem-solvers of our age are engaged in each day.
Continuing in this commendable fashion, Brooks writes in the The York Times that the social development of human beings is remarkably unlike that of all other life forms in that moral underpinnings are common to human interaction. His commentary “Nice Guys Finish First” brings together numerous recent social, neuro-scientific, religious and anthropological studies to illustrate that unlike all other mammals, humans are best served to care for each other as well as protect themselves. As a matter of cultural development, the “survival of the fittest” is tempered in humans by the need to cooperate to achieve mutual benefit. When I act in cooperation with others, I am willing to sacrifice something of selfish value to achieve a “greater good”. Only humans are capable of this moral thinking, Brooks (and his sources) argue.
This tension between preserving one’s self-interest and the mutually beneficial pursuit of the interests of others is a key element of conflict management theory and practice. Neither should predominate at the expense of the other. Both must be managed in a healthy interdependent fashion.
Accommodating the needs of others without regard to personal interest leads to exploitation and abuse. Competition without regard to the needs of others destroys relationships and diminishes the value of living and working in community. Skilled conflict managers in business, civic affairs, personal and religious settings know how to hold these seemingly inconsistent forces in a healthy and constructive tension.
It is exciting to realize how science and social researchers are confirming what the conflict management community has known and practiced for decades: competition and cooperation are not “either/or” propositions. “Both/and” is the power behind innovation, creativity and problem-solving and the key to building a better society.