The Hidden Power of Conflict and Disagreement
  • leadership
  • Blog post

The Hidden Power of Conflict and Disagreement

Ever been part of a group that quickly came to a unanimous decision over the best path to take? And then watched as that course of action proved a disaster?

If you have, you know the hazards of the phenomenon known as groupthink. Webster defines it as a pattern “characterized by… forced manufacture of consent and conformity to group values.”

Groupthink is mainly a social and political problem: It’s all about maintaining your status within the group. People who are seen as disruptive get marginalized – even if what they’re saying is true. Meanwhile, those who repeat and repackage conventional wisdom are seen as more competent and knowledgeable. Further, social relationships often matter most when it comes to winning promotions and raises — you get ahead not by being right, but by being agreeable.

For team leaders, all this means you can’t overcome groupthink simply by telling your people to be open, honest or critical. You need to disrupt the politics of consensus by creating structures and processes that force people to disagree.

Conflict = quality

To see how, let’s start with a research study that examined decision making among managers.

The study focused on two decision-making techniques designed to create conflict: devil’s advocacy and dialectical inquiry. A devil’s advocate argues against a certain point of view, usually the majority opinion. In dialectical inquiry, multiple groups argue different positions based on the same facts: One group might look at a problem and argue that it should be solved with technology, while another group argues for solving it through better communication.

In the study, three middle management teams were asked to solve a business problem. One group was told to use dialectical inquiry. A second group was told to use devil’s advocacy. And a third group was told to use a consensus-seeking approach.

Afterwards, a panel of senior managers evaluated on a five-point scale the quality of each group’s recommendations, without knowing which group had created which proposals. The average scores for dialectical inquiry and devil’s advocacy were high – 4.34 and 4.29, respectively. But for the consensus group, the quality score was only 3.22. Conflict clearly created a better outcome.

Mending fences

However, the study demonstrated that when you use these techniques, you may have some fence-mending to do afterwards.

When the researchers asked group members whether they supported the ultimate recommendations, buy-in was lower in the adversarial groups. That’s not surprising. Adversarial approaches create winners and losers. It’s harder for the “losers” to support the winning argument.

That’s an important insight. The findings suggest that conflict-creating techniques take a toll on individuals and the group as a whole. So you must do something to reinforce the status of those who argued the “losing” side, and repair frayed social bonds.

What to do

If you want to use adversarial techniques to improve your team’s decision making, consider these recommendations:

  1. Before the process begins, explain why you’re taking this approach.. Acknowledge that it’s hard to disagree with colleagues whom you like and respect, which is why you need a formal process.
  2. Explicitly assign people to defend or challenge assumptions and recommendations. That gives people political cover. Challenges aren’t personal; people are simply playing an assigned role.
  3. Moderate, but don’t judge. Once people sniff out which side the boss favors, everyone will quickly rally around it.
  4. Close with consensus. Bring the entire group together at the end to evaluate the different arguments and agree on a course of action.
  5. After the decision is made, help the “losers” regain their status. Praise them for their willingness to debate opposing views and engage in conflict over ideas rather than over personalities. Show how their efforts made the final decision better.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “How to Head Off Groupthink.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Jamieson, J. P., et al. (2014). Sympathy for the devil? The physiological and psychological effects of being an agent (and target) of dissent during intragroup conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 221-227.

Schweiger, D. M., et al. (1989). Experiential effects of dialectical inquiry, devil’s advocacy and consensus approaches to strategic decision making. Academy of Management Journal, 32(4), 745-772.

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