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The Perils of Conflict and Dissent

Of course, dissent does not always prove to be productive; cultivating conflict has its risks. To understand the perils, we must distinguish between two forms of conflict. Suppose that you ask your management team to compare and contrast two alternative courses of action. Individuals may engage in substantive debate over issues and ideas, which we refer to as cognitive, or task-oriented, conflict. This form of disagreement exposes each proposal’s risks and weaknesses, challenges the validity of key assumptions, and even might encourage people to define the problem or opportunity confronting the firm in an entirely different light. For these reasons, cognitive conflict tends to enhance the quality of the solutions that groups produce. As former Intel CEO Andrew Grove once wrote, “Debates are like the process through which a photographer sharpens the contrast when developing a print. The clearer images that result permit management to make a more informed—and more likely correct—call.”50

Unfortunately, when differences of opinion emerge during a discussion, managers may find it difficult to reconcile divergent views. At times, people become wedded to their ideas, and they begin to react defensively to criticism. Deliberations become heated, emotions flare, and disagreements become personal. Scholars refer to these types of personality clashes and personal friction as affective conflict. When it surfaces, decision processes often derail. Unfortunately, most leaders find it difficult to foster cognitive conflict without also stimulating interpersonal friction. The inability to disentangle the two forms of conflict has pernicious consequences. Affective conflict diminishes commitment to the choices that are made, and it disrupts the development of shared understanding. It also leads to costly delays in the decision process, meaning that organizations fail to make timely decisions, and they provide competitors with an opportunity to capture advantages in the marketplace.51 Figure 1.2 depicts how cognitive and affective conflict shape decision-making outcomes.52

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2. Cognitive and affective conflict

Consider the case of a defense electronics firm examining how to restructure a particular line of business. The chief executive wanted to take a hard look at the unit because it had become unprofitable. Multiple options emerged, and managers conducted a great deal of quantitative analysis to compare and contrast each possible course of action. A lively set of deliberations ensued. The chief financial officer played a particularly important role. He scrutinized all the proposals closely, treating each with equal skepticism. One manager remarked, “He would be able to articulate the black-and-white logical reasons why things made sense, or why they didn’t make sense....He was incredibly objective...like Spock on Star Trek.” Unfortunately, not everyone else could remain as objective. Some managers took criticism very personally during the deliberations, and working relationships became strained. Discussions became heated as individuals defended their proposals in which they had invested a great deal of time and energy. Some differences of opinion centered on a substantive issue; in other cases, people disagreed with one another simply because they did not want others to “win” the dispute. As one executive commented, “We could have put the legitimate roadblocks on the table and separated those from the emotional roadblocks. We would have been much better off. But we put them all in the same pot and had trouble sorting out which were real and which weren’t.” Ultimately, the organization made a decision regarding how to restructure, and looking back, nearly everyone agreed that they had discovered a creative and effective solution to the unit’s problems. However, the organization struggled mightily to execute its chosen course of action in a timely and efficient manner. The entire implementation effort suffered from a lack of buy-in among people at various levels of the organization. Management overcame these obstacles and, eventually, the business became much more profitable. Nevertheless, the failure to develop a high level of consensus during the decision process cost the organization precious time and resources. Figure 1.3 depicts how conflict and consensus can come together to lead to positive outcomes rather than poor choices and flawed implementation efforts.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3. The path to decision success

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