Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Harmony and Apathy

In a 1997 article entitled, How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, Eisenhardt, Kahwajy and Bourgeois make the case that the absence of conflict is not harmony, it's apathy. They talk about healthy conflict versus interpersonal conflict. Healthy conflict explores options and leads to better understanding. Interpersonal conflict involves emotions which block efficient and effective resolution.

They note a number of attributes that executive teams with good conflict management skills have; first and foremost is management with data. In the absence of good data, they point out, executives waste time in pointless debate over opinions. I have personally seen such a spiral; it is difficult to break free from that, especially when the opinions are strongly held, because then gathering data is perceived as a waste of time.

They also point out that humor is strikingly absent from teams which demonstrated high interpersonal conflict. The natural question here is whether this is cause or effect. I am a large fan of humor, it tends to defuse tension, even if contrived. People appreciate it. However, once your environment is plagued with high interpersonal conflict, it might just be that it is no longer fun, and therefore not funny either.

The factor that led me to the article, is what they refer to as balanced power structures. To minimize interpersonal conflict, they say, the CEO has to wield ultimate power, but the executives all participate in strategic decisions, and each has power over their functional areas. The opposite of this is a "power vacuum".

I really like their advice on how to build a team that deals with conflict well. It seems like it could be almost as effective with management of peers in the case of a power vacuum, or from above. Their last line: "often, what passes for consensus is really disengagement".

Don't let your reports or peers off too early or easily, and work to remove the emotion.

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