Thursday, February 5, 2009

How Leaders Use Helpful Conflict - Part I

ConflictFightj0232446jpg Managing conflict begins by understanding that the word "conflict" derives from the Latin word conflīctus - a striking together. When two people have conflict, they can either strike together by tackling an issue together or strike together by butting heads. Many leaders don't distinguish between helpful and hurtful conflict - cognitive from emotional conflict. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, cognitive conflict arises when there are disagreements over tasks and issues. It focuses on what needs to be done and therefore, helps decision-making and project success. When team members feel free to express differences openly and challenge each other's assumptions, they identify flawed thinking, flag real weaknesses, and contribute creative ideas. Emotional conflict, often referred to as affective conflict, involves personal friction, clashing styles, or relationships problems. Because it focuses on personalities, hurts decision-making and decreases a team's willingness to collaborate during 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 for managing conflict for encouraging cognitive conflict and discouraging affective conflict. (1) In this blog, I’ll explain the first three:

1. Gather data and focus the facts.

2. Brainstorm alternatives to enrich dialogue.

3. Discuss and share common goals.

4. Inject humor in decision-making.

5. Maintain a balance of power.

6. Resolve issues without forcing consensus.

1. Gather data and focus the facts. As 15 time All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal stepped to the free throw line in overtime, the announcers said, "Although Shaq is only a 50% lifetime free throw shooter; he usually makes them when it counts." I turned to my wife and said, "These announcers are idiots." That's when I explained to her that announcers have been saying that “Shaq makes free throws when it counts" for 15 years. Yet, I've never heard any statistics regarding his free-throw shooting percentage in the final minutes of games. If I was on a project team with some of these announcers and they offered only their opinions regarding Shaq's free throws (or whatever), they would drive me nuts and there would be emotional conflict.

Professor Eisenhardt points out that at one high-tech company, the top management team examined a wide variety of operating measures on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. For example, every week they focused on bookings, backlogs, margins, engineering milestones, cash, scrap, and work-in-process. Armed with facts, conflicts were data driven, not personality clashes. If you want to minimize emotional conflict, gather data. Measurement eliminates argument.

2. Brainstorm alternatives to enrich dialogue. Leaders often want teams to make a decision and move on. This is often a mistake because it forces team members to make black-and-white choices, with little room to shift positions without losing face. Another approach is to require multiple alternatives. Consider the electronics company that faced a cash flow crisis caused by explosives growth. The CEO assigned a team of executives to look at numerous alternatives. The team explored a buffet of options, such as extending their line of credit from banks, selling stock, outsourcing, and strategic partnerships. Generating several options actually energized these executives and led to creative discussions regarding how to combine elements of each, which is what the final plan did. Commitment to the final plan was much higher because a broad spectrum of opinion was considered. Increasing involvement increases commitment, thereby facilitating implementation.

3. Discuss and share common goals. When people are pointed in the same direction, they seldom point at each other. Common goals are the rallying cry for extraordinary teams. When I was helping CDG, a Boeing subsidiary, bring their projects in on time, target and budget, one project manager asked me how to keep his team focused on the project goal during team meetings. Among other things, I suggested that he insert the project goal as the header on all project documents, including meeting agendas and minutes. I also encouraged him to start each meeting by stating the overall goal of the project.

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

Keep eXpanding,


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

1 comment:

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