Purpose vs. Groupthink
How do we improve performance? Do we cut costs and focus on efficiency? Invest in sales, technology and marketing? Should we develop our existing product suite or start from scratch on something new? Do we grow local market share or explore uncharted territories? We can't do it all, so we need to prioritise:
This is Task Conflict
It can be resolved in different ways:
- By Politics and Groupthink — the Marketing Director wades in with a big pitch to put brand front and centre. The product's a laughing stock so that won't do much good, but he's the CEO's golfing buddy and heir apparent. No one wants a Corporate Hunger Games so the heads around the table nod their consent.
- By Open Conflict — the team foster intellectual disagreement. They listen to opposing views, challenge each other and develop a balanced approach in response to the discussion.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the latter is shown to improve productivity. The task-focus of the conflict encourages teams to share information and put their collective strategy under a critical spotlight. But I bet you've also worked in teams that are more in line with the first option? That kind of decision-making might ring some bells.
This is Relationship Conflict (1)
Conflict turns toxic when it gets personal; it influences our effectiveness, our creativity and our satisfaction at work (2,3). The ‘deal’ of a shared vision is broken because we believe our Marketing Director cares more about his personal standing and success — it's not possible to engage in positive task conflict because we're not working toward the same endpoint. Our competing individual goals overshadow our shared objectives and constructive criticism is interpreted as an attack (4). Groupthink reigns supreme.
(2) Evan, W. M. (1965). Conflict and performance in R & D organizations. IMR; Industrial Management Review (pre-1986), 7(1), 35.
(4) Amason, A. C., & Schweiger, D. M. (1994). Resolving the paradox of conflict, strategic decision making, and organizational performance. International Journal of Conflict Management, 5(3), 239-253.
Purpose and Trust are the antidotes.
Imagine we're trying to get out of a haunted house and one of our party suggests we head up to the attic. There's some shrieking and wailing she reckons is the sound of other ghost hunters celebrating their escape.
I'd be pretty forthright in suggesting an opposing view and I'm sure you would too.
You get the point. The more an opportunity is perceived to hold collective value, the more likely we are to debate how it's brought to fruition. If there's no meaning in our work and no value in what we bring to our customers and communities, then why bother cultivating a team environment where task conflict thrives? Purpose promotes feelings of belonging and connectedness, and these are critical pillars in sustaining our drive for performance (5). They offer us a platform for shared motivation.
Intra-team trust is closely linked; a management concept that sounds woolly but strikes me as a damn sight more productive than the average remuneration strategy. Last year, a meta-analysis of 112 studies showed a positive relationship between trust and team performance. The results supported Google's claim that ‘psychological safety’ - the confidence that you won't be rejected or punished for speaking up (6) - was the leading indicator of high performance among their internal teams.
So how do you improve performance?
From a task perspective, who knows? It could be any combination of the answers at the top of the article (and a whole load more). But you can't easily jump into that debate unless you've got a team that trust each other enough to disagree, and who are working in service of a mission bigger than themselves.
Have a think about whether your company facilitates that culture. What do those quarterly sales targets, competitive performance rankings, corporate silos and individual bonuses really contribute? Other than building walls and suspicion among teammates? What could you do to foster togetherness and mutual trust instead?
How could you highlight the collective value you bring to the outside world, and use it to promote a task conflict that will bring out your best? Most importantly, how do you approach those questions with the rigour and investment they deserve?