How might conflict act as a force to increase group performance? It is hard to visualize a situation in which open or violent aggression could be functional. But there are a number of instances in which it is possible to envision how low or moderate levels of conflicts could improve the effectiveness of a group. Because people often find it difficult to think of instances in which conflict can be constructive, let’s consider some examples and then review the research evidence. Note how all these examples focus on task and process conflicts and exclude the relationship variety.
Conflict is constructive when it improves the quality of decisions, stimulates creativity and innovation, encourages interest and curiosity among group members, provides the medium through which problems can be aired and tension released and fosters an environment of self evaluation and change. The evidence suggests that conflict can improve the quality of decision making by allowing all points, particularly the ones that are usual or held by a minority, to be weighed in important decisions. Conflict is an antidote for groupthink. It doesn’t allow the group to passively rubber stamp decisions that may be based on weak assumptions, inadequate considerations of relevant alternatives, or other debilities. Conflict challenges the statues quo and therefore furthers the creation of new ideas, promotes reassessment of group goals and activities and increase the probability that the group will respond to change.
For an example of a company that suffered because it had little functional conflict you don’t have to look further than automobile behemoth General Motors. Many of GM’s problems from the late 1960s to the late 1990 can be traced to lack of functional conflict. It hired and promoted individuals who were yes-men loyal to GM to the point of never questioning company actions. Managers were for the most part, homogeneous: Conservative white males raised in the Midwestern United States who resisted change – they preferred looking back to past successes rather than forward to new challenges. They were almost sanctimonious in their belief what had worked in the past would continue to work in the future. Moreover, by sheltering executives in the company’s Detroit offices and encouraging them to socialize with others inside the GM ranks, the company further insulated managers from conflicting perspectives.
More recently, Yahoo! provides an illustration of a company that suffered because of too little functional conflict. Begun in 1994, by 1999 Yahoo! had become one of the best known brand names on the internet. Then the implosion of dot.com stocks hit. By the spring of 2001, Yahoo!’s advertising sales were plunging and the company’s stock was down 92 percent from its peak. It was at this point that Yahoo!’s most critical problem became exposed: the company was too insulated and void of functional conflict. It couldn’t respond to change. Managers and staff were too comfortable with each other to challenge the status quo. This kept new ideas from percolating upwards and held dissent to a minimum. The source of the problem was the company’s CEO. He set the tone of non-confrontation. Only when he was replaced in 2001, with a new CEO who openly challenged the company’s conflict-free climate, did Yahoo! begin to successfully solve its problems.
Research studies in diverse settings confirm the functionality of conflict. Consider the following findings.
The comparison of six major decisions made during the administration of four different US presidents found that conflict reduced the chance that group think would overpower policy decisions. The comparisons demonstrated that conformity among presidential advisors was related to poor decisions, whereas an atmosphere of constructive conflict and critical thinking surrounded the well developed decisions.
There is evidence indicating that conflict can also be positively related to productivity. For instance it was demonstrated that, among established groups, performance tended to improve more when there was conflict among members than when there was fairly close agreement. The investigators observed that when groups analyzed decisions that had been made by the individual members of that group, the average improvement among the high conflict groups was 73 percent greater than was that of those groups characterized by low-conflict conditions. Others have found similar results: Groups composed of members with different interests tend to produce higher quality solutions to a variety of problems than do homogenous groups.