Too Hot To Handle? HOW TO MANAGE RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT
Encouraging senior executives to work as a team has been suggested as a way of enhancing leadership effectiveness in today’s complex organizations. A number of management scholars and practitioners have argued that teamwork at the top promotes better decision
ing and increases the involvement and commitment of key executives.1 At the same time, considerable research and anecdotal evidence suggest that senior teams find teamwork difficult.2 The competing viewpoints that promote sound decision making also lead naturally to conflicts that waste precious time and erode interpersonal relationships. Indeed, when substantial conflicts erupt in management teams, dysfunctional group dynamics followed by frustration and flawed decisions may be the rule rather than the exception. Clearly, realizing the promise of teamwork at the top requires finding ways to help management teams deal constructively with tough conflicts.
Prior work has advised management teams facing conflict to focus on the substance (the “task”) and to steer clear of relationship issues. Task conflict, some researchers argue, can be resolved by recourse to facts and logic, whereas relationship conflict turns into unproductive personal attacks and emotional con- frontations. Task conflict is conceptualized as differences in opinion relating to work or business decisions, while relationship conflict pertains to personality differences and interpersonal tensions.3 These researchers propose that teams
Authorship is alphabetical. We thank Chris Argyris, Michael Beer, Stuart Bunderson, Richard Hack- man, Mark Moore, Mike Wheeler, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. We also thank the Division of Research at Harvard Business School and The Monitor Group for financial support for this research, Stacy McManus, Kathryn Flynn, and Kate Roloff for research assistance, and our executive colleagues in the field whose full participation in and support of these research projects contributed in substantial ways to the development of our ideas.
engaging in frequent task conflict will perform well, while teams caught up in relationship conflict will suffer, and so the latter should be avoided.4
This advice makes sense under certain conditions. First, the task conflict must not trigger opposing values, interests, or belief systems in the team. For example, if some executives believe that good design sells products while others believe that customers are primarily motivated by price, a conflict that pits design against price triggers these opposing beliefs. The second condition is met if careful analysis of facts, such as financial data or engineering tests, can reduce or eliminate key uncertainties that support different options. Third, the stakes should be low or only moderately high. These “cool topics” can be addressed by debating the facts, with little risk of giving rise to heated disagreement. There- fore, for cool topics, the advice to steer clear of relationship conflict is feasible and sensible. In these cases, especially when leaders emphasize shared goals and good communication, teams can process conflicts effectively.5
In contrast, “hot topics” call for a different approach. Hot topics in man- agement teams are those for which
Under these conditions, relationship conflict has an annoying habit of showing up uninvited, despite managers’ best efforts to avoid it. This is because of the way the human mind works.
Behavioral research has shown that people spontaneously attribute unflattering motives, traits, or abilities to those who disagree—and persist in disagreeing—with our strongly held views.7 One’s own views seem so “right” that others’ disagreement seems downright disagreeable (and intentionally so). Two cognitive mechanisms identified by psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues help explain why this happens. First, people tend to see their own views as more common than they really are, leading them to assume (falsely) that others share their views—the false consensus effect.8 This assumption creates problems when unex- pectedly refuted, as in the course of a dis- agreement. Unfortunately, this is usually an unpleasant rather than pleasant sur- prise, due to a second mechanism, naïve realism—a person’s “unshakable conviction that he or she is somehow privy to an Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, studies the effects of leadership and team process on organizational learning and innovation.
Diana McLain Smith is a founding partner of Action Design(r) and a partner at The Monitor Group where she is the Chair of Human Dynamics and Change in Organizations.invariant, knowable, objective reality—a reality that others will also perceive faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational.” So, when others mis- perceive that “reality,” we conclude that it must be because they view the world through a “prism of self-interest, ideological bias, or personal perversity
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