Creating Functional Conflict

If managers accept the interaction view toward conflict, what can they do to encourage functional conflict in their organizations?

There seems to be general agreement that creating functional conflict is a tough job, particularly in large American corporations. A high proportion of people who get to the top are conflict avoiders. They don’t like hearing negatives; they don’t like saying or thinking negative things. They frequently make it up the ladder in part because they don’t irritate people on the way up. Another suggests that at least seven out of ten people in American business hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors, allowing bosses to make mistakes even when they know better.

Such anti-conflict cultures may have been tolerable in the past but not in today’s fiercely competitive global economy. Organizations that don’t encourage and support dissent may find their survival threatened. Let’s look at some approaches organizations are using to encourage their people to challenge the system and develop fresh ideas.

Hewlett Packard rewards dissenters by recognizing go-against the grain types, or people who stay with the ideas they believe in even when those ideas are rejected by management. Herman Miller Inc., an office furniture manufacturer has a formal system in which employees evaluate and criticize their bosses. IBM also has a formal system that encourages dissension. Employees can question their boss with impunity. If the disagreement can’t be resolved the system provides a third party for counsel. Royal Dutch Shell Group. General Electric, and Anheuser Busch build devil’s advocates into the decision process. For instance, when the policy committee at Anheuser Busch considers a major move, such as getting into or out of a business or making a major capital expenditure, it often assigns teams to make the case for each side of the question. This process frequently results in decisions and alternatives that hadn’t been considered previously.

The Walt Disney Company purposely encourages big, unruly, and disruptive meetings to create friction and stimulate creative ideas. Hewlett-Packard rewards dissenters by recognizing go-against-the-grain types, or people who say with the ideas they believe in even when those ideas are rejected by management. Herman Miller Inc., an office-furniture manufacturer, has a formal system in which employees evaluate and criticize their bosses. IBM also has a formal system that encourages dissension. Employees can question their boss with impunity. If the disagreement can’t be resolved, the system provides a third party for counsel.

Royal Dutch Shell Group, General Electric, and Anheuser Busch build devil’s advocates into the decision process. For instance, when the policy committee at Anheuser Busch considers a major move, such as getting into or out of a business or making a major capital expenditure, it often assigns teams to make the case for each side of the question. This process frequently results in decisions and alternatives that hadn’t been considered previously.

One common ingredient in organizations that successfully create functional conflict is that they reward dissent and punish conflict avoiders. The real challenge for managers, however, is when they hear news that they don’t want to hear. The news may make their blood boil or their hopes collapse, but they can’t show it. They have to learn to take the bad news without flinching. No tirades, no tight-lipped sarcasm, no eyes rolling upward, no gritting of teeth. Rather, managers should ask calm, even tempered questions: Can you tell me more about what happened? What do you think we ought to do? A sincere Thank you for bringing this to my attention will probably reduce the likelihood that managers will be cut off from similar communications in the future.

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