Fostering Constructive Conflict in Teams

according to President trump, nurturing conflict promotes better decisions. But how can leaders and negotiators disagree without dissolving into dysfunction and strife?

By on / Conflict Resolution

On March 6, the news broke that President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was resigning over his opposition to the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. A week later, Trump replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA chief Mike Pompeo, saying that he and Tillerson “were not really thinking the same” and had “a different mindset.” And on March 22, Trump replaced his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, with John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The departures were the latest in a string of Trump administration resignations and firings linked to internal conflicts and policy differences. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, the turnover rate for top decision makers during Trump’s first year in office was 34%; by comparison, the first-year turnover rates of the previous five presidents ranged from 6% to 17%. By 14 months, Trump’s turnover rate had climbed to 43%. And on the day he fired Tillerson, Trump said more staff shake-ups were coming.

At a press conference on March 6, Trump denied that his administration is in chaos and suggested that any conflict that has emerged in the White House has been beneficial.

“I like conflict,” he said, describing his decision-making style as a businessman and now as president. “I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that, and I make a decision. But I like watching [conflict], I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”

As we’ll see, conflict can, indeed, be an asset in negotiating and decision- making teams, but only if it’s managed constructively.

The right kind of conflict

President Trump’s appreciation of conflict aside, most people are more inclined to want to get along well with others. In groups and teams, that motivation can hold us back from expressing viewpoints that diverge from those of the majority.

In the 1970s, psychologist Irving Janis used the term “groupthink” to describe the common tendency for group members to withhold their true views for fear of being excluded or antagonizing others. Groupthink can lead negotiating teams and other groups to overlook critical information from their decision-making process and ignore looming crises. Janis blamed groupthink for President John F. Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1986 Challenger disaster, for example.

The key to effective group decision making is constructive dissent—disagreements that respectfully and productively challenge others’ viewpoints.

The best leaders avoid groupthink by surrounding themselves with people who have diverse views, styles, and perspectives, Lesley University president and conflict management expert Jeff Weiss said in a recent interview with NPR’s Marketplace. This diversity of opinion helps leaders view a problem from all angles, a benefit that Trump appears to appreciate.

The key to effective group decision making is constructive dissent—disagreements that respectfully and productively challenge others’ viewpoints, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino. We often wrap up negotiations too quickly and leave value on the table because we fear disagreeing with others, she says. By contrast, when we not only feel free to disagree with others but also are encouraged to do so, we open the door to different perspectives and foster a more rigorous decision-making or negotiation process.

The notion that conflict and dissent contribute to more informed decisions has a long history in American politics. After his election in 1860, for example, Abraham Lincoln appointed all three of his rivals for the Republican nomination to his cabinet. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin argued in her best seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005) that Lincoln benefited from working with his former enemies. However, historian James Oakes argued in the New York Times that Lincoln succeeded not because of the “contentious, envious, and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas” who surrounded him but in spite of them.

Diversity of opinion has many benefits, but it also can make it more likely that team conflict will become unconstructive, distracting, and damaging. In their research, University of Virginia professor Kristin Behfar and her colleagues found that when negotiating teams disagree on substantive issues, such as interests, priorities, and goals, the process of reconciling their disagreements can lead them to better outcomes than if they hadn’t disagreed. But if the conflict veers off track and becomes personal, the team is likely to be far less productive.

“Once it becomes a personal battle, not only do you often end up losing people from your team,” says Weiss, “but you’re not getting the information . . . that at a nuanced level will help you as a leader make a decision.”

Promoting constructive conflict

How can we engage in constructive dissent in group meetings and negotiations without being sabotaged by destructive conflict? Consider the following four suggestions:

1. Negotiate differences behind the scenes. When negotiating with another team, your team will want to present a unified front. Conflict may be useful behind the scenes, but at the table it can be a sign of weakness and disarray. For this reason, your team should spend at least twice as much time preparing for an upcoming negotiation as you expect to spend at the table, according to Cornell University professor Elizabeth Mannix. Begin by debating the issues to be discussed and developing priorities. Aim to achieve consensus on the team’s goals and the strategies you will use to achieve them.

2. Assign a devil’s advocate. At Chicago-based money-management firm Ariel Investments, leaders actively promote dissent in meetings by assigning “devil’s advocates” to poke holes in the decision-making process, writes Gino in her new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life (Dey Street Books, 2018). Ariel’s president, Mellody Hobson, kicks off team meetings by reminding those present that they don’t have to be right; they just need to be prepared to disagree in order to help the team make wise decisions. (In our Q&A with Gino on page 8, she describes another strategy that can help teams generate creative solutions, known as “plussing.”)

3. Manage diverse opinions. Rather than allowing team members to stake out their positions with arguments and data, leaders should encourage them to share the objectives and reasoning that underlie their positions, Weiss advises. By asking questions such as, “What’s your logic?” and “What are your objectives?” leaders will generate information that will help them understand the motives and interests behind team members’ arguments—and make more informed decisions as a result. In addition, leaders should encourage subordinates to examine and question their assumptions, and entertain the possibility that someone else may have a better idea.

4. Prepare for conflict. Although team members may try to express their differences professionally
and respectfully, there may be times when disagreements become personal and unproductive. Leaders can encourage team members to reveal the hidden interests and concerns behind their accusations and demands through active listening. In the process, team members may come to view their differing preferences as opportunities for value-creating tradeoffs.

For Kushner, an information disadvantage

In late February, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, saw his security clearance downgraded from top secret to secret, reportedly on the orders of White House chief of staff John Kelly. Kushner had been working under interim security clearance for many months due to ongoing delays in completing his FBI background check.

Kelly reportedly was concerned that Kushner’s family business dealings could pose significant conflicts of interest with his government work. The Washington Post reported that American officials had intercepted conversations among officials from at least four foreign governments discussing the possibility of gaining influence with Trump by attempting to do business with Kushner.

Trump had assigned Kushner to lead an array of key foreign-policy initiatives, from negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians to improving U.S. relations with Mexico. His ability to pursue those goals was cast in doubt by the new restrictions on his access.

“You can do the job, but you can’t do it well” without top-secret clearance, Chris Hill, who led nuclear negotiations with North Korea under President George W. Bush, told the New York Times. “You have to know as much as you can because the other side knows as much as they can.”

In all types of negotiations, information about the other party—its interests, capabilities, weaknesses, and secrets—helps us determine what deals are possible and how we can gain an edge. Access to sensitive information also conveys that we have the backing of our organization. Whether Kushner can effectively negotiate “with one hand tied behind [his] back,” as one source described his situation to the Times, remains to be seen.

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