Does Conflict Improve Decision-Making?
By Glenn Krahulic and Peter Walters
Does a collaborative environment require team interactions to be harmonious? Can good decisions even be made in an environment where everyone is supportive, in agreement and non-confrontational?
Conversely, does friction and disagreement improve decision-making or hinder it?
Collaboration and Conscious Conflict
Liane Davey, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, expressed the view that there is no point to collaboration without tension, disagreement, and conflict (Davey, 2017). According to Davey, the idealized versions of teamwork—wherein everyone is a good team player—are making teams impotent, and that there is no point to working together if you agree on everything.
On the other hand, Nicole Lipkin in her book, What Keeps Leaders Up At Night, suggests that effective collaboration all comes down to group conformity (Giang, 2013). Does conflict hinder or improve collaboration and decision making? The answer lies in the realm of group dynamics.
Multiple Factors of Group Dynamics
The way people interact in groups has been heavily studied and findings suggest that decisions that are reached by groups can be substantially different than decisions that are made by individuals working alone. Studies in group dynamics identify that individuals in a group are impacted by several factors specific to the group’s composition and setting.
One factor is the innate human need to fit in and be seen to be part of the team. This can lead to people supporting positions that they do not hold or not voicing opinions because they believe that they would not be well received by the group. This effect, called group polarization, tends to result in groups adopting more extreme views than that held by most of the participants individually (PsyBlog, 2009).
A telling study looked at the decisions made by federal court judges individually and in groups. They found that judges were almost 70 per cent more likely to reach an extreme decision (as measured by their criteria) when working in a group (Main, 1973).
From Forming to Performing
Other factors that affect group decisions are power relationships and the stage of maturity of the group. Power relationships tend to control the agenda of groups and the direction of discussion Power can be explicit or implicit making it difficult to identify and control.
Group maturity identifies how individuals in a group work together based on the time they have been together as a group. Bruce Tuckman (Tuckman, 1965) identified four (later five) stages of maturity that groups pass through as they evolve into an effective team:
- Forming—a group is being formed and looks for outside guidance and direction.
- Storming—the group grows internal cohesiveness and begins to question outside authority.
- Norming—he team begins to address the issues related to their mandate and starts to develop procedures and processes.
- Performing—the team works effectively together and begins to make decisions and solve problems.
Tuckman pointed out that a team will not be fully effective until it reaches the stage of performing. He further noted that many teams do not transition through all the stages and get locked in to an early stage—disallowing their reaching a level of effectiveness.
Conflict Key to Creativity?
So, do teams need to be in a state of conflict to be effective? The argument put forward by Davey is that the exploration of new and creative ideas requires conflict where team members identify and then fight over a full range of ideas. The expectation is that in this environment the best idea will win. Unfortunately, an environment of conflict where power dynamics define the group interactions will inhibit both the expression and exploration of ideas.
The solution is not to create an environment of conflict, but to establish a group and corporate environment that promotes and supports the exploration of new and innovative ideas while controlling group dynamics so that all participants feel enabled. This requires building individual decision-making and collaboration skills within the group and combining them with decision-making processes and a corporate culture that supports the full consideration and unbiased selection of options.
Purpose Requires Changing Gears
A final factor that needs to be considered is the group’s purpose. While there are a number of different group types in a business setting, the main consideration is whether the group is primarily making decisions or taking actions. In the decision-making phase of a group’s activities there need to be practices, tools and processes that enable creative thought and the development of innovative ideas.
In the action mode, a group must be fully aligned and able to focus on the execution of the decision. This requires a group to “change gears” as they move from a decision focus to an execution focus. A failure to adopt the right group alignment and focus in either phase will increase substantially the risk of failure.
Glenn Krahulicis a business moderator, trainer, and author. As the president of Tyra Information Strategies Inc., Glenn has spent over 30 years working with medium and large public and private organizations to build and deliver enterprise level IT solutions. As the lead architect of Tyra’s tools and processes, he is focused on integrating the findings of behavioral science into approaches to enable organizations to fine tune their culture, skills and decision making processes.
After nearly 35 years in the BC Public Service, many of them as an Assistant Deputy Minister in the tourism, natural resource and Aboriginal relations ministries, Peter Walters has focused on facilitation, training and writing. In addition to facilitating workshops and producing online content at Tyra Information Strategies, Peter leads seminars on briefing, leadership and governance.
Davey, L. (2017, January 31). “If Your Team Agrees on Everything, Working Together Is Pointless.” Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2017/01/if-your-team-agrees-on-everything-working-together-is-pointless#comment-section
Giang, V. (2013, July 22). 4 Factors That Can Poison Your Group Dynamic. Retrieved from American Express Open forum: https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/4-factors-that-can-poison-your-group-dynamic/
Main, E. a. (1973). Choice Shifts and Extreme Behavior: Judicial Review in the Federal Courts. The Journal of Social Psychology, pp. 215-221.
PsyBlog. (2009, September 1). Group Polarization: The Trend to Extreme Decisions. Retrieved from
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental Sequences in Small Groups. Psychology Bulletin 63.