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How Management Teams can have a good fight


The management teams who have conflicts over each other’s thinking about a critical decision, a
whole range of choices open up before them and this will enable them to make rational decisions in
the current competitive business environment. But sometimes the arguments made in conflicts might
be construed as personal remarks. Personalities often become intertwined with issues. The challenge
before managers is this – keep the constructive conflict from turning into destructive interpersonal
conflict. In fact, managers should encourage the team members to argue without destroying their
ability to work as a team. The problems with interpersonal conflict show that, an emotional, irrational
angle also comes into play.

Addendum from class discussion:

There are two types of conflict in organisations:

1. Substantive Conflict (conflict on issues)

2. Emotional Conflict (interpersonal conflict)

Study: A study was conducted by this HBR author into a dozen (12) tech companies’ teams where the
teams of 5-9 execs, who all had to make quick decisions under pressure to deliver. It was found that,
while taking these critical decisions, executives in 4 of these companies had almost no conflict in taking
tough decisions or resolving critical issues. On the other hand, conflict was observed in the
management teams of 8 of the companies.

In 4 of these companies, the conflict was benign. i.e., the executives called their colleagues ‘smart’,
‘team player’ and ‘best in the business’ (had high regard for each other) and they described their work
as a team as ‘open, fun and productive’. Thus, they had avoided interpersonal conflict although there
was a constructive, intellectual conflict.

In the remaining four companies, the conflict during work turned unproductive with members fighting
with each other. They described each other as ‘manipulative’, ‘secretive’, ‘political’. The group
dynamics were counter-productive to decision making.

The 4 groups that were successful in minimizing interpersonal conflict following tactics – 1. Worked
with maximum information 2. Debated based on facts 3. Set common goals 4. Developed multiple
alternatives 5. Injected humour into the decision-making process 6. Resolved issues without forcing
consensus 7. Maintained a balanced power structure. These tactics actually improved the speed of
their decision making.

Focus on Facts :

The study showed how one of the companies which faced little conflict actually focussed on a lot of
data in their discussions. They took periodic data from the environment such as performance data of
the company such as bookings, accounts etc and also about moves of the competitors. This enabled
the executives to focus on the data and on facts rather than steer the discussion into a self-
aggrandisement exercise. Management teams troubled by conflicts focus on guesses and hunches
rather than current data. There is a direct link between RELAINCE ON FACTS and low interpersonal
conflict. The teams which don’t rely on facts work on past measures of performance and try to make
subjective guesses of the future performance. The discussion will then be focussed on the future
Multiply the alternatives:

The teams having less interpersonal conflict in the study had multiple options before them. In fact,
some managers strive to put more options on the table to enhance the discussion and prevent conflict.
The more options there are, the more the discussion is focussed on substantive discussion rather than
interpersonal issues. If there are only two options, managers see it in black and white and have to take
a decisive stand and thus, the discussion flow into the interpersonal quarrelling. If there are more
options, the process becomes more creative (in generating more option) and the options are less black
and white, allowing managers to shift their stance without losing face.

Create Common Goals

Having a common collaborative goal rather than conflicting goals for a team will help the team
discussions be less destructive. The companies where the management team was focussed on a
singular goal such as ‘improving the cash flows’ were focussed on the problem although the discussion
went into various alternatives to achieve the same. When managers focus on a common goal, they
will not see themselves as winners or losers at the end but see themselves as having achieved the

Use Humour:

Using humour at work, sometimes even forced humour helped reduce interpersonal conflict. In fact,
when people are in a positive mood, they tend to let down their guard and effectively listen to the
arguments of others. Also, serious information conveyed by one person to another, when done in an
environment filled with humour, is more likely to be received well without introducing a dimension of

Balanced Power Structures:

Managers are less likely to resent a decision when it has come from within the team when they think
it is fair. A balance of power within the team lends a degree of fairness to the decision making.
Typically, in a company, the CEO should not be either an autocrat or weak. In management teams
which had low interpersonal conflict, although the CEO was the most powerful person, each of the
executives had power in their area of expertise. Each decision must be taking involving as many people
as possible because it helps to make them feel empowered. Imbalanced power structures were
observed by a study to visibly show forms of verbal aggression and chaos.

Balancing power builds a sense of fairness.

Seek Consensus with qualification

Finding an alternative to resolve issues is the most critical. When a management team is faced with a
critical decision, they need to sit together and have a discussion about the various choices before
them. The top manager tries to get a consensus on the decision they make. However, if there is no
consensus or agreement on the issue, the CEO or top manager makes a decision taking into account
the views expressed by the team.

Even though everyone may not agree with the choice made by the team, they would be satisfied
knowing that they had a say in the process. The process of decision-making must be equitable and
egalitarian providing everyone an equal opportunity to weight in with their views. This also helps a
team to make a critical decision within a given time-frame. One could contrast this process with a
consensus-building exercise which could drag on for months and finally, the decision taken in the end
might not be an accurate representation of most of the views expressed.
Conclusion : Linking Conflict, Speed and Performance

In the complicated and fast-paced business world we live in today, conflict among top management
teams is bound to happen. Only when such substantive conflict happens can teams find a richer set
of alternatives, more information and gather knowledge about the strategic decisions they have to
make. Also, decisions can be taken in a shorter period of time when there is conflict along with a
higher performance.

In teams where there is no conflict, it cannot be said that there is agreement. In fact, there will be
disengagement and resentment in the team. Also, in such situations, Group Think arises which limits
the choices when making a strategic decision. Lack of conflict often limits the performance of teams.

How can managers foster substantive conflict ?

1. Assemble a heterogeneous team which has diverse people

2. Have the team members meet very often to get people to know each other’s positions
3. Let the team member’s play varying roles beyond the product and geography such as a devil’s
advocate, sky-gazing visionary
4. Apply multiple mind-sets to the issue (role-playing, stepping into competitor’s shoes and war-
5. Don’t let the team give in too easily without conflict. Remember lack of conflict does not
always means agreement, it might mean disengagement.