2- to 3-page account of a difficult conversation you had in a professional context. Make sure you include the following:First, briefly describe the circumstances of a difficult face-to-face conversation you have had in a professional setting. Then recount the specific actions you took to try to resolve the situation, and explain whether or not those actions were effective and why.Applying the learning resources from the week, analyze the difficult conversation and explain what it taught you about your own approach to communication, and the strategies that would help you improve your communication skills. Be sure to provide a rationale as to why you think these strategies would be effective for you and lead to better results in these types of circumstances.If you were to face a similar difficult conversation today, explain how you would prepare for it. Use the weekly Learning Resources and, where appropriate, your personal and professional experiences to support conclusions.Finally, how would you prepare for a similar conversation in a virtual setting? How would you handle the difficult conversation differently in a virtual setting versus a face-to-face setting?
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Too Hot To Handle?
HOW TO MANAGE
RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT
Amy C. Edmondson
Diana McLain Smith
E
ncouraging senior executives to work as a team has been suggested
as a way of enhancing leadership effectiveness in today’s complex
organizations. A number of management scholars and practitioners
have argued that teamwork at the top promotes better decision making and increases the involvement and commitment of key executives.1 At the
same time, considerable research and anecdotal evidence suggest that senior
teams find teamwork difficult.2 The competing viewpoints that promote sound
decision making also lead naturally to conflicts that waste precious time and
erode interpersonal relationships. Indeed, when substantial conflicts erupt in
management teams, dysfunctional group dynamics followed by frustration and
flawed decisions may be the rule rather than the exception. Clearly, realizing
the promise of teamwork at the top requires finding ways to help management
teams deal constructively with tough conflicts.
Prior work has advised management teams facing conflict to focus on
the substance (the “task”) and to steer clear of relationship issues. Task conflict,
some researchers argue, can be resolved by recourse to facts and logic, whereas
relationship conflict turns into unproductive personal attacks and emotional confrontations. Task conflict is conceptualized as differences in opinion relating to
work or business decisions, while relationship conflict pertains to personality
differences and interpersonal tensions.3 These researchers propose that teams
Authorship is alphabetical. We thank Chris Argyris, Michael Beer, Stuart Bunderson, Richard Hackman, Mark Moore, Mike Wheeler, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an
earlier version of this paper. We also thank the Division of Research at Harvard Business School and
The Monitor Group for financial support for this research, Stacy McManus, Kathryn Flynn, and Kate
Roloff for research assistance, and our executive colleagues in the field whose full participation in
and support of these research projects contributed in substantial ways to the development of our
ideas.
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Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict
engaging in frequent task conflict will perform well, while teams caught up in
relationship conflict will suffer, and so the latter should be avoided.4
This advice makes sense under certain conditions. First, the task conflict
must not trigger opposing values, interests, or belief systems in the team. For
example, if some executives believe that good design sells products while others
believe that customers are primarily motivated by price, a conflict that pits
design against price triggers these opposing beliefs. The second condition is met
if careful analysis of facts, such as financial data or engineering tests, can reduce
or eliminate key uncertainties that support different options. Third, the stakes
should be low or only moderately high. These “cool topics” can be addressed by
debating the facts, with little risk of giving rise to heated disagreement. Therefore, for cool topics, the advice to steer clear of relationship conflict is feasible
and sensible. In these cases, especially when leaders emphasize shared goals and
good communication, teams can process conflicts effectively.5
In contrast, “hot topics” call for a different approach. Hot topics in management teams are those for which
▪ differing (usually taken-for-granted) values, belief systems, or interests
shape individuals’ points of view;
▪ relevant uncertainties surrounding the topic or decision cannot be
reduced by a review of the available facts;6 and
▪ stakes are high.
Under these conditions, relationship conflict has an annoying habit of showing
up uninvited, despite managers’ best efforts to avoid it. This is because of the way
the human mind works.
Behavioral research has shown that people spontaneously attribute
unflattering motives, traits, or abilities to those who disagree—and persist in
disagreeing—with our strongly held views.7 One’s own views seem so “right”
that others’ disagreement seems downright disagreeable (and intentionally so).
Two cognitive mechanisms identified by psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues
help explain why this happens. First, people tend to see their own views as more
common than they really are, leading them
to assume (falsely) that others share their
Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of
Leadership and Management at Harvard Business
views—the false consensus effect.8 This
School, studies the effects of leadership and team
assumption creates problems when unexprocess on organizational learning and innovation.
pectedly refuted, as in the course of a dis
agreement. Unfortunately, this is usually
Diana McLain Smith is a founding partner of
an unpleasant rather than pleasant surAction Design(r) and a partner at The Monitor
Group where she is the Chair of Human Dynamics
prise, due to a second mechanism, naïve
and Change in Organizations.
realism—a person’s “unshakable conviction
that he or she is somehow privy to an
invariant, knowable, objective reality—a reality that others will also perceive
faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational.” So, when others misperceive that “reality,” we conclude that it must be because they view the world
through a “prism of self-interest, ideological bias, or personal perversity.”9 When
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Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict
TABLE 1. Contrasting Cool and Hot Topics
Data
Cool Topics
Hot Topics
Accessible,
relatively objective,
conducive to
testing of different
interpretations
Controversial
and/or inaccessible,
interpretation
highly subjective,
different
interpretations
hard to test
these well-documented cognitive tendencies get applied to
the problem of discussing a
conflict on a hot topic in a
management team, major
challenges lie ahead.
When heated business
debates trigger relationship
conflict, individual managers
usually consider two alternaHigh*
Moderate to low
Level of
tives, each of them unattracCertainty
tive: silence one’s views to
Low to moderate
High
preserve relationships and
Stakes
make progress; or voice them,
Largely shared
Differ based on
Goals
risking emotionally charged
deeply held beliefs,
discussions that erode relavalues, or interests
tionships and harm progress.
Reasonable, factOften emotional,
Discussion
Our intervention research,
based, collegial
lack of agreement
building on Chris Argyris and
about which facts
Donald Schön’s pioneering
matter and what
they mean, veiled
work in organizational learnpersonal attacks
ing, suggests that neither
likely
choice produces effective team
discussions.10 First, silencing is
* High certainty situations involve present actualities or near-term possibilities that
often ineffective. The negative
can be illuminated relatively easily through facts and analyses. Low certainty situations
emotional reactions embedded
involve more distant or future possibilities for which facts don’t yet exist, only
inferences.
in people’s attributions typically leak out through tones
of voice or veiled criticisms,
distorting the substantive conversation and intensifying relationship tensions.
Worse, the emotions often inspire political maneuvers that undo whatever
“consensus” teams may reach at the decision-making table. Second, although
relationship conflict is usually handled poorly, we have found that it is possible
to learn how to handle it well.
Teams that effectively discuss the charged relationship dynamics that surface when discussing hot topics can take better advantage of the potential of
teamwork than if they avoid these discussions. Our distinction between cool and
hot topics can help managers recognize situations in which avoiding relationship
conflicts will be challenging and perhaps even unwise.11 As summarized in Table
1, hot topics are relatively easy to recognize, and managing them is challenging
but not impossible. As Mary Parker Follett suggested years ago, given that we
can’t avoid conflict, we might as well put it to good use.12 While this is easier
said than done, specific practices can help management teams put conflict,
including relationship conflict, “to good use.”
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Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict
Research Base
Over the past two decades, we have studied and helped management
teams facing conflicts related to critical business issues. Amy Edmondson has
investigated why some teams handle conflict in ways that further innovation
and organizational learning while other teams fall behind. Diana Smith, through
longitudinal intervention research, has helped executives work with their most
intractable conflicts, strengthening interpersonal relationships in the team along
the way. Together, we engaged in an in-depth longitudinal study of one senior
management team in a firm we refer to as “Elite Systems.” In all, we have studied dozens of management teams and analyzed thousands of pages of transcripts
encompassing hundreds of conflicts, in the tradition of “action science” (research
designed to develop and test strategies for action).13 These experiences have led
us to two observations. First, when management team conflicts encompass
opposing values or interests that are deeply held, relationship conflicts are virtually inevitable. Second, management teams—with guidance and practice—can
learn to handle relationship conflicts effectively.
This article integrates our own field research with prior work on organizational learning and social cognition to show how hot topics trigger relationship
conflict and how most teams respond once it does. Drawing from cognitive
research, we describe the existence of “cool” and “hot” thought processes; drawing from our data, we illustrate how these different systems affect management
teams, inspiring our distinction between hot and cool topics. In particular, we
show how the management team at Elite Systems struggled with a hot topic that
triggered both task and relationship conflict, and then how, with intervention,
they became more able to engage both types of conflict productively.
Our analyses first reviewed verbatim data from interviews and meetings
to identify attitudes and behaviors that made relationship conflict discussable,
deepened understanding of issues, and promoted integration and synthesis of
differences. We then grouped these behaviors into three categories, which we
refer to as “practices”; each practice encompasses a set of actions, behaviors,
and attitudes. We illustrate these practices with data from Elite’s and three
other management teams—in another manufacturing company, a professional
services firm, and a pharmaceutical company.
When Conflict Gets Personal
Starting with the best of intentions and steeped in the relevant facts,
executives seeking to exploit the advantages of teamwork often encounter conflicts that derail collaboration. Consider a conflict that broke out at Elite Systems,
a manufacturer of high-end office equipment for home and business markets.14
Conflict in Elite’s Strategy Team
Eight senior managers, including the CEO, gathered in a series of meetings to rethink their corporate strategy in the face of the firm’s deteriorating
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financial performance. At one session, two executives almost came to blows:
Ian McAlister, the head of Elite’s struggling core business, and Frank Adams,
the president of a small, successful subsidiary with less-expensive product lines.
Adams opened the discussion. “We face a fundamental problem,” he
announced, looking directly at McAlister. “For three years, we’ve sunk an enormous amount of money into turning around your [Elite’s core] business, but the
dropping revenues show it’s not working. I’m worried we’re sinking more and
more money into a business with no clear strategy for approaching today’s market. My research shows that growth is clearly at the low end of the market—
which is why our subsidiary had such a tremendous year and why your business is doing nothing but losing ground.”
As the rest of the group held its collective breath, McAlister straightened
in his chair and turned to face Adams. “From your point of view maybe,” he said.
“But with the same information, I would go in a very different direction. I know
we can’t sell the same way to our core segment as we have in the past. I know
we’ve got to do something different. But, we can grow if our products are attractive. We don’t need the market to grow for us to grow. Besides, a year ago, we
made a conscious choice to invest in the core business and those investments
haven’t paid off yet.”
With these two opening statements, Adams and McAlister set the terms
of the debate. To Adams, the data unequivocally “showed” that the core business
was in fundamental trouble; after all, the lower end of the market was growing.
It was “obvious,” but not to McAlister. He accepted Adams’s data, but he rejected
his conclusion. To McAlister, his view was equally obvious: you don’t need the
market to grow. If your products are attractive enough, you can expand market
share. Looking at the very same data, the two executives arrived at very different conclusions about how to deal with an uncertain future full of risk. As
McAlister soon exclaimed in frustration: “I don’t dispute the facts, but it doesn’t
follow from the facts that we should abandon the high end!”
Dynamics of Hot Topics
Our analysis of transcript data has identified three patterns that occur
when executive teams debate hot topics. First, people start to repeat the same
points over and over again. For example, at Elite, Adams continued to argue in
various ways that it wasn’t a good idea “to keep throwing money” at the core
business. McAlister never disputed Adams’s facts, but he countered his conclusions at every turn—and always with some version of the same argument: We
“invested heavily in this business because we thought our products were strong
enough to sustain growth, and those recent investments haven’t paid off yet.” In
a matter of minutes, they found themselves at an impasse where each manager’s
only recourse was to repeat his own position.
Second, as soon as a team reaches a substantive impasse, the discussion
starts to “get personal.” In the Elite case, interviews showed that Adams wondered privately, as did McAlister, why the other insisted on taking such obviously
wrong-headed views and persisted in holding them despite “rational” arguments
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that so obviously refuted them. In the meeting, they would speculate (privately)
about each other’s motives (e.g., Is he just pushing his self-interest? Is he afraid of
admitting a mistake?) This led quickly to silent attributions about the other’s character or abilities; (Is he closed-minded? Incompetent? Or just plain stupid?) Whether
blaming motives, character, or abilities, each individual is silently blaming the
other (or others) for the team’s impasse. Another well-documented cognitive
tendency, the fundamental attribution error, helps explain why. Ross showed that
people attribute others’ behavior overwhelmingly to dispositional causes (those
based on personality or motives), ignoring even powerful situational causes.15
This cognitive tendency can lead managers to attribute the behavior they
observe in others while discussing a hot topic—say, persistence or a frustrated
tone of voice—to others’ motives or character rather than to difficulties of the
situation (say, the challenges involved in discussing a complex, uncertain, highstakes topic with people who hold different beliefs about it.) Our research also
suggests that, in these situations, virtually no one entertains the possibility that
their own behavior may be one of the situational pressures contributing to the
other’s behavior.
Third, once a task conflict sparks negative interpersonal attributions,
emotions take center stage and substantive progress slows to a standstill. At this
point, people may openly blame the failures on their colleagues. At Elite, Adams
eventually threw up his hands and declared to the group in exasperation, “It
sounds to me like Ian is trying to take certain decisions off the table!” At a loss
for what to do, another manager cracked a joke and the group switched topics.
Given these dynamics, it is easy to understand why managers would want
to avoid relationship conflict. The problem is that it’s hard to do. Everyone on
Elite’s management team, including Adams and McAlister, was trying to avoid
what happened; they even had market data they had expected would help adjudicate their differences. They ran into difficulty—not for lack of trying or for lack
of data—but because their different beliefs systems led them to focus on different data, to discount each other’s data, and to draw very different conclusions
about what the data meant.16 This situation left them facing emotionally laden
relationship conflict, and it motivated Adams and McAlister to work behind the
scenes to garner support for their views. What the team lost was the opportunity
to synthesize different perspectives and understand their implications for Elite’s
future.
Contrasting Hot and Cool Topics
When data are relatively accessible and straightforward, criteria and goals
are largely shared, and differences don’t run very deep, conflict is not difficult
to resolve. In contrast, for hot topics, people may not agree which data are most
relevant, and interpretation of the data can be highly subjective. Managers’ subjective judgments are informed by their belief systems and are shaped by their
past experiences, personal values, psychological needs, and political interests
(see Table 1). As the conflict at Elite illustrates, when belief systems clash, conflicts resist resolution on the basis of facts and logic alone. McAlister differed
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Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict
TABLE 2. Hot and Cool Systems
Hot System
Cool System
Emotional
Cognitive
“Go”
“Know”
Simple
Complex
Reflexive
Reflective
Fast
Slow
Develops Early
Develops Late
Accentuated by Stress
Attenuated by Stress
Stimulus Control
Self-Control
Source: J. Metcalfe and W. Mischel,“A Hot/Cool System of Delay
of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower,” Psychological Review,
106/1 (1999): 3-19.
with Adams’s conclusions, not because he
disputed his facts, but because he held
different beliefs about the power of products, he valued design more than Adams
did, he didn’t want to go “down market,”
and—having invested his entire career
competing at the high end at Elite—his
choice seemed to him obviously right.
These were not matters of dispassionate
fact that could be adjudicated to support
shared goals. They were emotionally
charged considerations that mattered to
the individuals involved and to the
business.
Hot topics spark emotional reactions
that make reasoned deliberation difficult.
Once sparked, such reactions should be
addressed, as they rarely go away by themselves. Other psychological research
sheds light on the underlying cognitive mechanisms. According to Janet Metcalfe and Walter Mischel, human beings process events through two distinct
cognitive systems: a hot system and a cool system. While the former triggers us
to respond to ev …
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