Quarreling teams, successful results, how to manage conflict in decision making?

Organizations fear conflict. Their value statements emphasize “teamwork” and “collaboration”. When a problem arises, it is often denied or hidden to convey an image of a united team.

In some cultures, telling the truth can be perceived as disrespectful. Whoever formulates a possibility of failure is accused of being a pessimist. Thus, the denial of conflict causes management teams to suffer from a series of biases in decision-making and to reach manufactured consensus, where no one says what they think for fear of it being used against them.

The truth is that conflict is key to decision making. Peter Drucker said that when everyone in a team immediately agrees, it is best not to make any decisions.

Conflict reveals differences in perspectives, competencies, information, or strategic focus within a company. And there lie the opportunities to generate value. Clashes are the source of creative solutions and the way to achieve trade-offs between competing goals.

Therefore, instead of trying to reduce disagreements, we should embrace the conflict and institutionalize mechanisms to manage it.

Some guidelines for managing conflict

Adopt a method to make decisions in conflict situations.Having a clear process parties must follow shows that the organization sees conflict as an unavoidable aspect of business and creates a framework for leveraging it in decision making. There are different proven possibilities that can be adopted that will help achieve better results while minimizing emotional costs for the parties.

Provide clear criteria to define priorities. When the decision rule is clear, power bids decrease. Ambiguous maxims such as, “do what is best for the company” are useless. In a conflict situation, there will be many possible combinations that could be seen as “best for the company”, depending on each person’s point of view. For this reason, it is necessary to establish clear criteria that explain which factors should be privileged when making the decision. For example, a sales team that knows that an additional 5 percentage points of market share is more important than an additional 10 percentage points of customer satisfaction, will be much better equipped to resolve decisions when different needs from different parts of the organization come into conflict.

Set escalation rules. When a conflict arises, many managers prefer to send it upwards to avoid having to deal with it. Thus, the problem usually falls into the hands of a senior executive who is forced to decide on a problem they do not know about. Developing rules for what issues can be escalated and how to do so allows each team member to focus where they can add the most value. It is desirable to establish guidelines for those cases in which it actually is necessary for the conflict to be moved up. A good practice is for the people involved to see their superior together. Keeping these meetings separate will make each party tell their own version, biasing response and increasing noise in the organization.

Explain the reason for the decisions. When a conflict escalates and the decision ends up being taken at a higher level, it is important that the reason for the choice is explained. When the team knows why the decision was made, the implementation rate is higher and learning about ways and criteria to decide is generated.

In short, there is no need to fear conflict. The most creative solutions arise from it. But it is necessary to deal with it properly. Poorly managed, conflict can be destructive to an organization. With the right practices, it is possible to eliminate suspicion among colleagues, nurture relationships, and improve the quality of decisions.

Ernesto Weissmann
Partner at Tandem.

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