How to Create Functional Conflict in an Organization

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Functional conflict can facilitate better decision making within a team.
Functional conflict can facilitate better decision making within a team. (Image: argumentation image by iMAGINE from Fotolia.com)

Functional conflict can be good for an organization. It promotes the healthy exchange of ideas, clears the air and promotes creative thought and keen decision making. Leaders should build conflict into decision-making processes, says Michael Roberto, professor of management at Bryant University in Rhode Island and former Harvard Business School professor. Some companies pride themselves on having a collegial culture, and the idea of conflict is anathema to them. But good things happen when opposing views go head-to-head. Progressive leaders know how to generate functional conflict within a team when needed.

Lead by example. A leader who wants to generate opposing opinions encourages and rewards the behavior. She is proactive in speaking with--and listening to--others who may not agree with her. When she encounters a different point of view, she thoughtfully considers the pros and cons of the argument. She also encourages dialogue around the divergent viewpoint.

Assign a devil’s advocate during decision-making processes. Identify one person on the team who will push the group in a different direction. Challenge him to continue to question the thinking. Why would we do that? Who will object? What can we gain? What if it does not work? Allow others to help the devil in the role. Acknowledge when your devil’s advocate has done a good job of getting team members to really think through the implications of their decisions. This should be a rotating role so that everyone has the opportunity.

Role-play the competitor’s reaction. Divide the team into three groups. Ask Group A to role-play the competitor. Group B represents your company. And Group C is a collection of outside consultants. Now start the discussion by asking a critical question, such as: “How does this decision change the competitive landscape?” Group A members discuss this question among themselves as if they are a key competitor and have gained this knowledge through espionage. Group B discusses the decision and the impact it will have. Group C circulates among the other groups to gather points from each. Allow the discussion to run for at least 10 minutes. Have Group C report its observations and talk through its findings while the other two groups listen. Now open the discussion to the entire team and record any recommendations or follow-up items.

Repeat the role play, this time assigning Group A to play the customer, Group B to be investors and Group C to be consultants. Groups A and B, the stakeholders, discuss how the decision affects them. You can increase the effectiveness of this exercise by rotating roles. If necessary, repeat the stakeholder or competitor exercise as you move into implementation of a new decision. Although you do not want to encourage indecision, you do want to promote continued growth and the exchange of new data and information.

Involve the naysayers. When you set up task forces and special committees, include individuals who are likely to be negative. The point is not to reward resistance, but to train new behaviors. Naysayers will not quietly conform to the status quo. Use the naysayers to uncover potential problems with a plan and, more important, to generate solutions. In doing so, you will also create support and more viable decisions for the long run.

Tips & Warnings

  • Acknowledge that more than one person can be right. This creates an attitude more conducive to good conflict.
  • Learn to use language that encourages open communication while you work through conflict. Your first comment to the dissenter might be, for example, "Please tell me more."
  • Dissenting arguments should be grounded in facts.
  • The purpose of functional conflict is not to delay decision making indefinitely. Good leaders may need to intervene in a group that is caught in a cycle of endless meetings and dysfunctional conflict.

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