Top managers are often hindered by the difficulties of managing conflict. They know that conflict over issues is natural and even necessary. Reasonable people, making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, are likely to have honest disagreements over the best path for their company’s future.
Management team whose members challenge one another’s thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make effective decisions.
But unfortunately, healthy conflict can quickly turn unproductive. Anxiety and frustration over difficult choices can evolve into anger directed at colleagues. Personalities frequently become intertwined with issues.
Because most executives pride themselves on being rational decision makers, they find it difficult to acknowledge this emotional, irrational dimension of their behavior.
The challenge is to keep constructive conflict over issues from degenerating into dysfunctional interpersonal conflict, to encourage managers to argue without destroying their ability to work as a team.
A study by Kathleen Eisenhardt, Jean Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois found out that teams with minimal interpersonal conflict are able to separate substantive issues from those based on personalities. They manage to disagree over questions of strategic significance and still get along with one another. Such teams the researchers discovered use six basic tactics for managing interpersonal conflict where team members:
Work with more, rather than less, information and debate on the basic facts.
Develop multiple alternatives to enrich the level of debate.
Share commonly agreed-upon goals.
Inject humor into the decision process.
Maintain a balance power structure
Resolve issues without forcing consensus.
These tactics are usually more implicit than explicit in the decision-making work of management teams.
Focus on the Facts: Some managers believe that working with too much data will increase interpersonal conflict by expanding the range of issues for debate. However, more information is better – if the data are objective and up-to-date – because it encourages people to focus on issues, not personalities.
In the absence of good data, executives waste time in pointless debate over opinions. Some resort to self-aggrandisement and ill-informed guesses about how the world might be. People, and not issues, become the focus of disagreement. The result is interpersonal conflict.
There is a direct link between reliance on facts and low levels of interpersonal conflict. Facts let people move quickly to the central issues surrounding a strategic choice. Decision-makers don’t become bogged down in arguments over what the facts might be. More important, reliance on current data grounds strategic discussions in reality.
Multiply the Alternatives: Some managers believe they can reduce conflict by focusing on only one or two alternatives, thus minimising the dimensions over which people can disagree. But, in fact, teams with low incidents of interpersonal conflict have been found to do just the opposite. They deliberately develop multiple alternatives, often considering four or five options at once.
There are several reasons why considering multiple alternatives may lower interpersonal conflict. For one, it diffuses conflict: choices become less black and white, and individuals gain more room to vary the degree of their support over a range of choices. Managers can more easily shift positions without losing face.
Generating options is also a way to bring managers together in a common task. It concentrates their energy on solving problems, and it increases the likelihood of obtaining integrative solutions – alternatives that incorporate the views of a greater number of the decision-makers.
Create Common Goals: A third tactic for minimising destructive conflict involves framing strategic choices as collaborative, rather than competitive exercises. Elements of collaboration and competition coexist within any management team: executives share a stake in the company’s performance, yet their personal ambitions may make them rivals for power.
Successful teams consistently frame their decisions as collaborations in which it is in everyone’s interest to achieve the best possible solution for the collective. They do so by creating a common goal around which the team could rally. Such goals do not imply homogeneous thinking, but they do require everyone to share a vision.
Many studies of group decision-making and inter group conflict demonstrate that common goals build cohesion by stressing the shared interest of all team members in the outcome of the debate.
When teams are working toward a common goal, they are less likely to see themselves as individual winners and losers and are far more likely to perceive the opinions of others correctly and to learn from them. When executives lack common goals, they tend to be close-minded and more likely to misinterpret and blame one another.
Use Humor: Teams that handle conflict well make explicit and deliberate attempts to relieve tension and at the same time promote collaborative spirit by making their business fun. Humor works as a defense mechanism to protect people from stressful and threatening situations that commonly arise in the course of making strategic decisions.
It helps people to distance themselves psychologically by putting those situations into broader life context, often through the use of irony. Humor, with its ambiguity, can also blunt the threatening edge of negative information. Speakers can say in jest things that might otherwise be offensive because the message is simultaneously serious and not serious.
Balance the Power Structure: Autocratic leaders who manage through highly centralised power structures often generate high levels of interpersonal friction. At the other extreme, weak leaders also engender interpersonal conflict because the power vacuum at the top encourages managers to jockey for position.
Interpersonal conflict is lowest in balanced power structures, those in which the chief executive is more powerful than the other members of the top-management team, but the members wield substantial power, especially in their well-defined areas of responsibility. In balance power structures, all executives participate in strategic decisions.
Seek Consensus with Qualification: Balancing power is one tactic for building a sense of fairness. Finding the appropriate way to resolve conflict over an issue is another.
Teams that manage conflict effectively use a two-step process called consensus with qualification. It works like this: executives talk over an issue and try to reach consensus. If they can, the decision is made. If they cannot, the most relevant senior manager makes the decision, guided by input from the rest of the group.
How does consensus with qualification create a sense of fairness? A body of research on procedural justice, (discussed in this column last week), shows that process fairness, which involves significant participation and influence by all concerned, is enormously important to most people.
Individuals are willing to accept outcomes they dislike if they believe that the process by which those results came about was fair. Most people want their opinions to be considered seriously but willing to accept that those opinions cannot always prevail. That is precisely what occurs in consensus with qualification
A considerable body of academic research has demonstrated that conflict over issues is not only likely within top-management teams but also valuable. Such conflict provides executives with a more inclusive range of information, a deeper understanding of the issues, and a richer set of possible solutions.
The evidence also overwhelmingly indicates that where there is little conflict over issues, there is likely to be poor decision-making. Without conflict groups lose their effectiveness. Managers become withdrawn and only superficially harmonious. The absence of conflict is not harmony, it is apathy.
Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)