John Kelly. Gary Cohn. Rex Tillerson. General H.R. McMaster. Nikki Haley. Jeff Sessions. Scott Pruitt. Steve Bannon. Reince Priebus.
These are just some of the high-profile figures who left the White House who Donald Trump took office, often as a result of conflicts and policy differences with the president. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, the turnover rate for top decision-makers during Trump’s first year in office was 34%, as compared to rates of 6% to 17% for the previous five presidents. By December 2018, almost halfway through his term, Trump’s turnover rate had climbed to 62%.
Real-life conflict scenarios can keep groups from being effective. But at a press conference on March 6, Trump suggested that any conflict within the White House has been beneficial: “I like conflict. 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.”
Is conflict indeed an asset in negotiating and decision-making teams? Yes, but only if it’s managed constructively in real-life conflict scenarios.
The Right Kind of Conflict
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. In real-life conflict scenarios, groupthink can lead negotiating teams and other groups to overlook critical information and ignore looming crises.
The best leaders avoid groupthink by surrounding themselves with people with diverse views, styles, and perspectives, Lesley University president and conflict management expert Jeff Weiss told 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 to disagree with others, she says. By contrast, when we feel free to disagree with others, we foster a more rigorous decision-making or negotiation process.
At the same time, diversity of opinion can foster unconstructive and damaging real-life conflict scenarios. 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 conflict management process can lead them to better outcomes than if they hadn’t disagreed. But if the conflict becomes personal, the team is likely to be far less productive.
Promoting Constructive Conflict
How can we engage in constructive dissent in group meetings and negotiations without being sabotaged by destructive conflict? Research and real-life conflict management examples suggest these three guidelines:
- Negotiate differences behind the scenes. When negotiating with another team, your team needs 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, spend at least twice as much time preparing for an upcoming negotiation as you expect to spend at the table, advises 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.
- 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 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.
- 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. In real-life examples of workplace conflict, leaders can encourage team members to reveal the hidden interests and concerns behind their accusations and demands through active listening. As they navigate real-life conflict scenarios, team members may come to view their differing preferences as opportunities for value-creating tradeoffs.
What real-life examples of conflict resolution have you dealt with, and how?