Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The power of conflict

A culture of dissent is critical to making good group decisions.

That's the premise of an interesting take on the HP board debacle I read in the New Yorker this morning.

Lost in the hue and cry over the Chairwoman's unquestionably lame spy games, the author argued, is the fact that the leaks are terrible for HP because they encourage unaminity on the board... Which leads to bad decisions.

The article goes on to say that task conflict in a group setting is often misinterpreted as a difference in character, or relationship conflict.

Get a group together that has task conflict but no relationship conflict, and you get good decisions and a great work environment. Conflict in relationships and tasks means good decisions coming out of a room full of people who hate each other, and no conflict means mediocre decisionmaking.

I agree with this premise whole heartedly. The key ingredient in the task-only conflict recipe is trust. If you trust your colleagues, you are free to disagree, to say something stupid, to get batted down.

In my own business, my partner Jeff and I argue all the time about decisions, and keep a good relationship. I think it makes our choices better.

I have other working relationships where trust facilitates a culture of dissent (my marriage, for one), but I also have situations where dissent and hurt feelings are too intertwined.

My personality makes me naturally conflict averse and, as a result, I'm likely to sacrifice the task conflict to avoid the relationship conflict, and I know that decisionmaking suffers when I do that.

It's one of my biggest challenges as a manager and a person- to get better at this without changing who I am. I work on it a lot. But still I find that the working relationships that add the most value to my life are the ones where I can say what I think without worrying about them taking it personally.

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