Randy was under pressure as the product manager for a medical supply company. His team needed to design and deliver a new bedside monitor within 12 months. Unfortunately, his design team felt that the marketing group hadn't provided the correct information, and his manufacturing colleagues were angry that the design team was taking too long to select lead wires. Project meetings began with minor disagreements about specifications, but often degenerated into personal attacks such as, "you never..." and "you don't get it." Three months into the project, Randy knew that if he didn't do something, his project and reputation were in trouble.
“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it's apathy.” (1)The problem with Randy's team wasn't that they had conflict; it was that they didn't distinguish helpful from hurtful conflict. Managing conflict begins by understanding the difference between cognitive and emotional conflict. 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. Emotional conflict, often referred to as affective conflict, occurs when the disagreements are personal or related to relationships. It focuses on personalities and therefore, hurts decision-making and project success.
In summarizing 10 years of research on "how management teams can have a good fight," Professor Eisenhardt found that successful companies apply several tactics for managing conflict. (I'll highlight these today, and discuss them more fully in subsequent blogs.) She found that effective teams:
1. Gathered more data and focused the facts.
2. Brainstormed alternatives to enrich debate.
3. Discussed, agreed-upon, and shared goals.
4. Injected humor in decision-making.
5. Maintained a balance of power.
6. Resolved issues without forcing consensus.
These six worked for Randy when I taught his team how to adapt them to their environment. How can you apply them so you too benefit from conflict? Let me know and...
1. Kathleen Eisenhardt and colleagues; How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, Harvard Business Review, July -- August, 1977, 77 -- 85.