When Teams Work

By PON Staffon / Conflict Resolution

Adapted from “The Surprising Benefits of Conflict in Negotiating Teams,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

In December 2008, incoming U.S. president Barack Obama created a stir by appointing Senator Hillary Clinton, his bitter opponent for the Democratic nomination, to be his secretary of state. Could Obama expect loyalty from someone he had traded barbs with for months?

Some compared Obama’s choice to Abraham Lincoln’s decision, following his hard-fought election in 1860, to appoint all three of his rivals for the Republican nomination to his cabinet. In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Doris Kearns Goodwin maintains that Lincoln was largely able to inspire his former opponents to overcome their differences and rally around him. But in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, historian James Oakes argues that Lincoln was a successful president despite the “contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas” in his cabinet, not because of them.

In the realm of negotiation, the question as to whether rivalries and differences of opinion harm or help teams is a critical one.

In their research, Deborah Gruenfeld and Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Katherine Philips of Northwestern University, and Elizabeth Mannix found that team members who had not worked together before were unable to pool the information necessary to solve a problem. By contrast, teams of individuals who were familiar with one another easily pooled information and solved the same problem. Familiarity enables team members to share information and engage in the constructive conflict needed to find a solution, according to Mannix.

This doesn’t mean that teams should be built around close friendships. On the contrary, because friendship networks tend to spring up based on similar interests and skills, teams of friends may lack the diversity of knowledge and experience that’s needed to tackle a difficult negotiation. Thus, the best team may be one made up of people with diverse skills who have worked together before (and even clashed from time to time), rather than teams of close, like-minded individuals.