Senior Teams: The Positive Power of Conflict

Many observers have noted that cohesiveness is a key attribute of company teams that work well. But Orla Leonard, leader of the senior team effectiveness practice at RHR International, a senior leadership advisory firm, wanted to dig more deeply into just how that works at the uppermost levels of the corporation.

To do so, Leonard and her RHR colleagues, including co-authors Nathan Wiita, and Chris Milane, examined 55 top-performing teams encompassing some 700 senior executives. Looking at factors such as team structure, dynamics and processes, the researchers focused on what made those “best” teams different from the average group.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that cohesiveness is indeed important to the success of executive teams—but it is not the most important thing. “We expected to replicate the importance of cohesion in this unique context. We were wrong….” they noted in a report on their findings. “Rather, it is the ability to manage conflicting tensions—as opposed to seeking cohesion—that is the most predictive of top-team performance.”

“The best senior, enterprise-wide teams were the ones that could really have open, transparent, challenging dialogue with each other,” says Leonard. While tension and conflict may be a sign of trouble lower down in the organization, they can be signs of health in an executive team—if those factors are well managed, she says. Leonard adds that this may be due to the higher levels of complexity and uncertainty involved in executive decision making.

“we’re hearing back from people that the CEO plays a pivotal role in making this work. He or she needs to create a culture where people can have this dialogue.”—ORLA LeonaRD, RHR INTERNATIONAL

Typically, executive teams face tensions in three areas, the researchers report. One is “risk vs. results”—that is, finding ways to achieve short-term results while placing bets that may pay off in the long run. Another is “external vs. internal pull,” and the ability to balance inside perspectives with knowledge about customers, competitors and the industry to keep in step with change. And a third is “top-down vs. bottom up innovation,” and finding ways to both drive innovation and tap into new ideas from across the organization. In the top teams, the researchers noted, “these tensions are embraced as polarities to be managed, rather than problems to be solved.”

The CEO’s Job
In presenting the findings to conferences and clients, Leonard has found that these insights resonate with senior-level executives. In addition, she says, “we’re hearing back from people that the CEO plays a pivotal role in making this work. He or she needs to create a culture where people can have this dialogue.”

To foster a healthy approach to intra-team tensions, CEOs need to clearly define the executive team’s purpose and focus. Too often, says Leonard, “we see teams coming together, reporting information to each other, but not really working together to get into the guts of what’s changing the business.” The CEO, she says, can set the agenda and make it clear that rather than delve into details that can be handled lower down in the organization, the senior team should tackle strategic issues and crises from an enterprise perspective.

For example, Leonard recalls working with one high-performing team at a multi-national company where the CEO regularly set ground rules that allowed for conflict while keeping a big-picture focus. Before strategy meetings, she says, this CEO told team members to “first, leave your functional or business-unit hat at the door, and when we meet, come with an enterprise-wide perspective. And second, we’re going to spend a day on this and we’re going to disagree and we’re going to figure things out. And then we’re going to walk out of here with one voice, have a beer together, and take it out to the field.”

Too often, however, CEOs don’t create an environment that embraces tension and conflict, Leonard continues. In talking with executive teams, she says, “the sticking point seems to be around, ‘if our CEO has a style that shuts things down too quickly or doesn’t allow for this kind of dialogue, we’re kind of powerless.” As a result, team members become cautious and find it difficult to directly address tensions. To counter that, the CEO needs to make it clear that conflict is not only allowed, it is also a normal and expected part of the job.

This is where cohesiveness can play an important role. Trust and transparency make it possible for team members to focus on balancing tensions for the good of the organization, rather than defending their own turf. Thus, says Leonard, “the research is not throwing cohesion out the door—not at all. It is the thing that can enable these kind of effective conversations to happen in the team.”

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Peter Haapaniemi

Peter is a longtime business writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and outlets. A former editor at a B2B custom-publishing company, he has written on topics including technology, leadership, energy, finance, management, intellectual property and legal issues in business, among others.