Conflict is a necessary, valuable part of high functioning teams (Lencioni, 2002).  According to Eisenhardt et al. (1997) teams who do not engage in constructive conflict are likely to make less effective decisions based on fewer and less detailed options.  For conflict to be a positive experience a leader must understand why some people avoid conflict, their personal conflict preferences, and how to encourage healthy conflict resolution within the team.

Conflict Styles

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is a self-assessment tool that separates behavior preferences into five modes based on an individual’s assertiveness and their cooperativeness (TKI, personal communication, 2020).  The TKI’s five groups are labelled with terms that interfere with its interpretation due to negative societal connotations.  Competitiveness, for example, while expected of men, is not as socially acceptable for women (Powell et al., 2002).  Likewise, avoidance is often referred to as running away from a problem instead of dealing with the situation.  It has been suggested that renaming these groups may make it easier for individuals to be comfortable with the labels and more likely to lean-in to using the techniques that each group embodies (T. Saunders, personal communication, 2020).  Despite the negative connotations, it is important to understand that each team member will have a unique preference for how to handle conflict and that each conflict style has value when used in appropriate circumstances.

According to Schulz-Hardt et al. (2002) groups tasked with objective evaluation of alternatives are better able to make unbiased decisions when they ensure either genuine or contrived dissent.  Genuine dissent is best created when the group’s composition can be manipulated so individuals have natural differences in their preferences (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  Because this is often not possible in predetermined working groups, Shulz-Hardt et al. (2002) recommend contriving dissent by creating diversity of opinion through inclusion of individuals with diverse education and functional backgrounds and creating a culture where dissent and debate are valued.

Team Discussion

Following is a continuing analysis of a production team detailed in Blog Post 2 and analyzed in each post since.  The team has not taken the TKI and therefore what follows are estimates of their preferences and predispositions.  The team leader, the PD, is likely high on collaboration and mid-range in all other areas.  Conversely, the APD does not like conflict at all and is high in avoidance.  The other team members all differ in their preferred styles, but the overall team is driven by the leader’s preferences.  Though the team would prefer not to fight, the members are not afraid to express differing opinions.  The PD’s willingness to collaborate with an emphasis on listening to concerns and finding optimal team solutions coupled with their ability to take responsibility for decisions has led to the team’s overall ability to regularly produce a quality product.

Shulz-Hardt et al. (2002) stress the importance of educational and functional diversity within teams that are unable to choose their members.  The production team has worked together for five years and its membership is set by it’s board of directors.  It is comprised of people from varying functional backgrounds with the PD and CD in higher education, the APD in K-12 education, the FD in information technology, the TD in military service, the ND in research, and the MD in electrical technology.  Two members have no college experience, three members have bachelor’s degrees, and two members hold master’s degrees and are currently in doctoral level studies.  All team members can request that their assistants be included in planning meetings.  The production team evidences diversity of experience and background such that it should be able to engage in genuine dissent and positive conflict if it chooses to do so.

Self-Reflection

Individual team members need to learn what their conflict preferences are, and to expand their ability to use different modes of conflict resolution.  As a team member, I need to get better at compromise – at recognizing situations where I don’t have to be right in order to be successful.  Using Eisenhardt et al.’s (1997) recommendation of humor might help encourage team spirit and to lessen the sting of not ‘wining’ my way in a team conflict.  Focusing on the facts of the situation at hand and reminding myself and the team that the conflict is not personal should also help to encourage the use of different modes of conflict resolution.  The team would also be well served to talk over individual conflict preferences and the overall strategies of humor, multiple options, and a facts-only debate style.  Even from inside the team, rather than as the leader, the attempted use of these strategies by one member, me, should start to shift the culture around conflict by making the team a safer place to voice dissent.

Recommendations

When making major decisions the team should be aware of its potential towards conformation bias and seek to mitigate this by bringing in the assistants so that the group is more heterogeneous in its initial preferences and therefore has greater chance of genuine dissent (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  When time does not allow for this, the team should ensure that one member is assigned as devil’s advocate to encourage dissenting opinions thereby expanding choice and ensuring a higher quality decision (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  Though the team feels comfortable airing issues together, it needs to work to change the culture so that dissenting opinions, conflict, is valued more highly rather than seen as an obstacle to overcome.  This is particularly important for those members who are currently afraid of conflict (Lencioni, 2002).  Encouraging the psychological safety needed for productive conflict can be begun by just one person’s willingness to be vulnerable to the team (TedxTalks, 2014).  While it would be best if this person was the PD, the team leader, any member, myself included, can begin to change the organizational culture by leading with our own vulnerability and by being willing to listen for and encourage dissenting opinions.

References

Eisenhardt, K. M., Kahwajy, J. L., & LJ III, B. (1997). How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard business review75(4), 77-86.

Lencioni, P. (2002).  The five dysfunctions of a team.  Jossey-Bass.

Powell, G. N., Butterfield, D. A., & Parent, J. D. (2002). Gender and managerial stereotypes: have the times changed?. Journal of management28(2), 177-193.

Schulz-Hardt, S., Jochims, M., & Frey, D. (2002). Productive conflict in group decision making: Genuine and contrived dissent as strategies to counteract biased information seeking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes88(2), 563-586.

TEDxTalks. (2014, May 4). Amy Edmundson: Building a psychologically safe workplace [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8