The absence of conflict is not harmony, it's apathy.
How MANAGEMENT TEAMS CAN HAVE A GOOD FIGHT
by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L, Kahwajy, and LJ. Bourgeois III Top managers are often stymied by the diffieulties of managing conflict. They know that conflict over issues is natural and even necessary. Reasonable people, making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, are likely to have honest disagreements over the best path for their company's future. Management teams whose members challenge one another's thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make the kinds of effective decisions necessary in today's competitive environments. ARTWORK BY ERIC DEVER
But, unfortunately, healthy conflict can quickly turn unproductive. A comment meant as a substantive remark can be interpreted as a personal attack. Anxiety and frustration over difficult choices can evolve into anger directed at colleagues. Personalities frequently become intertwined with issues. Because most executives pride themselves on being rational decision makers, they find it difficult even to acknowledge-let alone manage-this emotional, irrational dimension of their hehavior. The challenge - familiar to anyone who has ever been part of a management team - is to keep constructive conflict over issues from degenerating into dysfunctional interpersonal conflict, to encourage managers to argue without destroying their "ability to work as a team. We have heen researching the interplay of conflict, politics, and speed in strategic decision mak-
The challenge is to encourage members of management teams to argue without destroying their ability to work together. ing by top-management teams for the past ten years. In one study, we had the opportunity to observe closely the work of a dozen top-management teams in technology-based companies. All the companies competed in fast changing, competitive global markets. Thus all the teams had to make high-stakes decisions in the face of considerahle uncertainty and under pressure to move quickly. Each team consisted of between five and nine executives; we were allowed to question them individually and also to observe their interactions firsthand as we tracked specific strategic decisions in the making. The study's design gives us a window on conflict as top-management teams actually experience it and highlights the role of emotion in business decision making; Kathleen M. Eisenhardt is professor of strategy and organization at Stanford University in Stanford, California, where her consulting and research focus on strategy in fast-paced industries, Jean L Kahwajyis a management consultant with Strategic Decision Group in Menlo Park, California, and is pursuing research at Stanford University on organizational influences on decision making. L.J. Bourgeois III is professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business in CharlottesviUe. 78
In 4 of the 12 companies, there was little or no substantive disagreement over major issues and therefore little conflict to observe. But the other 8 companies experienced considerable conflict. In 4 of them, the top-management teams handled conflict in a way that avoided interpersonal hostility or discord. We've called those companies Bravo Microsystems, Premier Technologies, Star Electronics, and Triumph Computers. Executives in those companies referred to their colleagues as "smart," "team player," and "best in the business." They described the way they work as a team as "open," "fun," and "productive." The executives vigorously debated the issues, but they wasted little time on politicking and posturing. As one put it, "I really don't have time." Another said, "We don't gloss over the issues; we hit them straight on. But we're not political." Still another ohserved of her company's management team, "We scream a lot, then laugh, and then...
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