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 / Third Quarter 1996 / Issue 4(originally published by Booz & Company)


Turning Conflict Into a Tool for Team Effectiveness

By contrast, people-oriented conflict, though it affects the team's very survival and development, is by definition more inward-looking, and thus offers less of a direct payoff in performance. During such conflict, actions are directed toward members' relations with each other, rather than the team's agenda.

Third, we need to question the assumption that conflict and negative emotion go hand-in-hand, or that negative emotion is a type of conflict. Emotion and conflict interact in far more sophisticated ways to affect team performance.

Team emotions may be viewed as having two components: tone and arousal. Recent research demonstrates that the amount of conflict leads to arousal, whereas the type of conflict leads to positive or negative tones of voice used by team members.

Too much or too little arousal is detrimental to team effectiveness, while some amount is likely to be beneficial. People-oriented conflict leads to a negative tone, whereas task-oriented conflict leads to a neutral or even a positive tone. Teams projecting a positive tone during a task-oriented conflict might suggest more alternatives to the problems they are weighing, whereas teams projecting a negative tone tend to rehash the alternatives originally suggested without reaching a conclusion.

Because conflict and corresponding emotions are inevitable and underlie team effectiveness, we need to aim, not at reducing conflict, but at insuring that the conflict and the corresponding emotions are beneficial.

For example, team discussions can be complex, so correct understanding is crucial. One way that team members can insure understanding is through an approach known as perspective-taking -- that is, engaging in communication that leads to the accurate understanding of how other team members think and feel about a situation, and why they are behaving as they are. Thus, they can comprehend both the information being presented by those who disagree with them and also the perspective from which the disagreement comes.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

There are many techniques that members can use to determine another person's perspective. These include: 1) self disclosure, to offer your own yardstick to measure a difference in views; 2) role reversal, to take the other member's view to understand where she is coming from and why she feels as she does; and 3) active listening, to listen closely to what is being said, ask questions about content and feelings and repeat back to a team member what you have heard (to make sure you heard it right and that your colleague said it the way she intended).

Managers can also lead the team through exercises designed to determine the different perspectives held by members and their importance to the team as a whole. One such exercise that I developed, the Information Importance Grid, helps members outline these differences and their relative importance.

That exercise proved useful to Judy, in the example above, who learned that her team members had ideas, concerns and perspectives that needed to be discussed. She prepared the team for perspective-taking by acknowledging that she had some ideas about where she wanted the team to go, but knew from previous meetings that there were conflicts to address. She started by getting those issues on the table in list form, without comment. When one member attempted to disagree with another about a concern, Judy said, "All of these issues are important, and different issues are naturally more important to some departments than to others. Let's see if we can hash out the problems and get this list narrowed into a manageable few issues to discuss and work on now, and maybe put together a separate list of things that we can address next."

Team members disclose more information when others use perspective-taking. In addition, the approach helps people frame their own messages so that they are more easily understood by others. Finally, it encourages team members to consider other perspectives during discussions, and thus achieve greater success.

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