Monday, February 9, 2009

How Leaders Use Helpful Conflict – Part II

Managing conflict begins by understanding that the word "conflict" derives from the Latin word conflictus - a striking together. When two people have conflict, they can either strike together by tackling an issue together or strike together by butting heads. The problem with many teams is that they don't distinguish between helpful and hurtful conflict - cognitive from emotional conflict. As I mentioned in the previous blog, cognitive conflict arises when there are disagreements over tasks and issues. It actually helps decision-making. Emotional conflict involves personal friction, clashing styles, or relationships problems. It hurts decision-making and implementation.

In summarizing 10 years of research on "how management teams can have a good fight," Professor Eisenhardt discovered that the most successful companies used several tactics to encourage cognitive conflict and discourage affective conflict. (1) In this blog, I’ll explain the last three:



1. Gather data and focus the facts.


2. Brainstorm alternatives to enrich dialogue and debate.


3. Discuss, agree-upon, and shared common goals.


4. Inject humor in decision-making.


5. Maintain a balance of power.


6. Resolve issues without forcing consensus.



4. Inject humor in decision-making. Humor is the shock absorber of conflict. As you and your team travel down the bumpy road of work, your ride will be much smoother if you have a sense of humor. Teams that handle conflict well make the effort to relieve the tension of work with the joy of laughter. One computer manufacturer encouraged fun by playing gags around the office, starting their meetings with the joke, and dressing up for every conceivable holiday (Valentine's Day, April Fool’s Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween...). The executives at this company point out that despite their humor being (as opposed to human being) contrived and silly, it still accomplishes the goal of creating an environment where emotional conflict is minimized, cognitive conflict is promoted, and stress is relieved. You can't have an emotional argument with someone who has a fake arrow sticking through his head.


Science says having a sense of humor is more important than mere laughing. Researchers in Norway surveyed 54,000 people to gauge how easily they found humor in real-life situations and enjoyed being with those who had a sense of humor. (2) Seven years later, those who scored in the top quarter for humor appreciation were 35% more likely to be living than those in the bottom quarter were. Participants who had a cancer diagnosis at the beginning of the study were 75% more likely to be alive if they scored higher in the humor appreciation group. The researchers made a distinction between laughing and having a sense of humor - "a particular playful perspective on everyday life." If you want to cushion your team from the emotional bumps of conflict, invite them to brainstorm ways to make work more playFULL.


5. Maintain a balance of power. During my first summer camp at Holiday Ridge, I realized that the key to having a great summer was to have a great camp counselor. I also discovered at the tender age of ten that the best counselors “balanced power.”


My first leader was Larry -- a laissez-faire, hands off counselor. We were disorganized, late to events, performed poorly when we got there, and argued among ourselves a lot. On the other end of the spectrum, were groups led by autocratic leaders like Joel. I stayed away from those kids because they were hostile during games and picked fights in the shadows. The best leaders were like Rusty. He was organized, positive, disciplined, and involved his kids in decision-making. Although they didn't always win the games, they always seemed to have the most fun.


If you want to minimize emotional conflict, you need to manage the tension between being too controlling (like Joel) and too hands-off (like Larry). You can accomplish this by evaluating your group decision-making process. Survey your team members to see if they approve of how decisions are made. If they perceive that the process is fair, they’ll support decisions and encourage execution. If they feel the process is not fair, they’ll comply with the decision and subtly sabotage implementation. A fair decision-making process ensures that team members have:



- Defined roles, responsibilities, and authority.


- Written norms for team decision-making.


- Opportunities for their voices to be heard before the boss’s biases are aired.


6. Resolve issues without forcing consensus. On New Year’s Day, 1777 General Charles Cornwallis arrived at the British camp in Princeton, New Jersey. He was not a happy camper. George Washington and his troops had turned the tide of the American Revolution by crossing the Delaware River and attacking his troops. Cornwallis called a meeting of his generals "not to ask what should be done as Washington did, but to tell his subordinates what he meant to do." (3) Therein you have the difference between Washington and Cornwallis’ methods of resolving issues. Cornwallis made all the major decisions by himself and rejected contrary advice from his officers. Washington had an improvisational and inclusive approach to command. He met frequently with his generals and encouraged the free exchange of views. He created a community of inclusion without forcing consensus. Washington’s style worked well with America's diverse culture, less stratified society, and expanding ideas of liberty and freedom. It led to skillful collaboration and minimized emotional conflict. It will do the same for you in today's diverse, global, and competitive environment.


Of course, having too much input from too many people can bog the decision-making process down and create emotional conflict. The most effective leaders, like Washington, resolved difficult conflict by first discussing the issue and trying to reach consensus with others. If they succeed, the decision is made. If no consensus is reached, the appropriate leader makes the decision with input, but with no consensus, from the group.


These are three more keys to help your team have healthy conflict. How can you adapt them to your environment?



Keep eXpanding,


Dave


1. Kathleen Eisenhardt and colleagues; How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, Harvard Business Review, July -- August, 1977, 77 -- 85.


2. Ami Albernaz; He Who Laughs Lives Longest, Science and Spirit Magazine, May/June 2007, 9 -- 10.


3. David Hackett Fischer; Washington's Crossing, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 2004, page 291.

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