There are many ways managers can reduce conflicts in their teams without squelching new ideas. Too bad more don't use them, because a new study gives voice to the critical role of managers in managing disagreements.
This latest evidence is unusual in two ways. First, it comes from nonprofit sports boards in Canada instead of companies or classrooms. These create sports opportunities "by overseeing the strategic development and delivery of programs, player and coach training, and allocating scarce resources," the study article says. Second, the study is based on structured interviews with 20 board members, by sports management researcher Shannon Kerwin of the Univ. of Florida and kinesiologist Alison Doherty and Alanna Harman of The University of Western Ontario. Though I warn against reading too much into studies using small samples, this is different because it adds a level of detail to other larger studies and brings their findings to life. In fact, the subjects had participated in a previous survey about conflict.
From the respondents who volunteered, the scientists chose 12 who reported low conflict on their boards and eight who reported high conflict. However, the scientists switched one from the low-conflict to the high-conflict group because the person's interview answers made clear there were more disagreements than the person had reported on the survey. There were 13 males and seven females averaging 5.5 years on their boards.
Kerwin, Doherty, and Harman asked about three types of conflicts:
The research team conducted interviews lasting about an hour each, covering specific questions based on previous studies but also following up on themes that emerged during the interviews. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and then coded to clump similar answers.
In general the respondents rejected the term "conflict." One, for example, gave the study its title when he or she said, "'it's not conflict, it's differences of opinion.'" Most talked about "disagreements," which is where I think there is a disconnect between scientists and managers that also has prolonged a debate in the scientific community about the value of conflict. As shown above, scientists have chosen to define "conflict" as "disagreements." But the majority of people in the study and whom I have observed in my practice use the word more like the first definition in The American Heritage Dictionary: "Prolonged fighting." For reasons you'll see, Kerwin, Doherty, and Harman conclude that managers should try to eliminate the negative view of the word. I think it would be much easier for scientists to start using it the same way everyone else does.
The interviewees reported a range of intensity in board disagreements ranging from mild discussions to what most people would call conflict. Disagreements were viewed as good, which is consistent with the research literature on decision-making. As one person put it, "'The more opportunity to discuss an issue and bring in information that is varied and is based on different experiences and different perspectives, the better opportunity you will have to make an objective decision.'"
Another said the principle they lived by was, "'if the whole board agreed on something there is something wrong with it'" (groupthink, in other words). Given other findings, he or she probably meant this in regard to bigger decisions. Not surprisingly, low levels of disagreement were reported on less complex decisions.
Task disagreements were viewed as good for decision quality, even when intense, due to "idea generation, increasing understanding of issues, and making decisions in line with the organization's mission." However, intense process disagreement was seen as a negative for making good decisions, and "heated personal conflicts were perceived to reduce information and communication and oftentime resulted in decisions that were based on personal agendas rather than current strategy," the researchers state.
"Ten participants noted they had been frustrated, stressed, less satisfied with their role, or had suffered burnout and withdrawal from board activities due to intense conflict within their group," the study article says. I notice that only nine people were in the high-conflict study group! Four of the 10 had considered leaving their boards. The article concludes, "all three types of conflicts were perceived to consistently result in frustration and stress."
No participants thought demographic diversity led to higher disagreement. "Diverse priorities, personalities, and experiences" did, however. For example, one person noted differences between people who had been athletes and those who had not. Another mentioned a good worker who was nonetheless "talking behind the back" of board members.
One key to reduced intensity of disagreement—less conflict, I would call it—was "formalized policies, regulations, and codes of conduct," the article says. To that point a participant remarked, "'Once we have policies and procedures I think we will have a lower level of frustration and disagreement; but, that will not be for quite a while.'"
Because formal policies must be facilitated by the team leader, this leads to the other key to less conflict. "'I supposed it comes down to leadership in that there is not clear direction or clear leadership in our board as to how things should get done,'" one interviewee said.
A board leader gave a specific example of how things should be: "'Everybody knows they are going to get a shot to say something. So really, unless there is a lot of passion, they really don't interrupt each other because they know they are going to get an opportunity to have their say.'"
The researchers write, "Strong, active leadership is one condition that was described as minimizing the intensity of conflict and, as such, it is incumbent on the board leader to take control of their board meetings and proactively create group norms that include open communication and discussion."
If you are a team leader, you are on the hook. Choose to blame others instead of taking these steps, and to be blunt, the conflicts you suffer are more your fault than anyone else's.
Source: Kerwin, S., A. Doherty, and A. Harman (2011), "It's Not Conflict, It's Differences of Opinion: An In-Depth Examination of Conflict in Nonprofit Boards," Small Group Research 42(5):562.