Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beyond Peace and Harmony to Real Collaboration

Many teams suffer from an oppressive preference for peace and harmony. Don’t get me wrong, I like peace and harmony, but it can breed complacency, laziness, neglect, and stagnation.  When conflict, disagreement, ambiguity, and doubt are suppressed in a group – explicitly or implicitly – the most likely outcomes are a high level of passive-aggressive behavior and a superficial consensus.

I’ve just started reading Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. In 2002, Kanheman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for work he had done with Amos Tversky on decision making (work that helped launch the field of behavioral economics). What has engaged me in the book so far (and I’m convinced there is a lot more) is the way he describes his collaboration with Amos Tversky. Here I quote from the Introduction:

“Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. Indeed, one of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other.”

It is wonderful to see how they found ways to use their differences in approach to take the work forward. I also like how Kahneman describes them both as critical and argumentative, but that was understood to be part of their collaborative process, not something to suppress.  I notice in some Western cultures (I’m thinking particularly of the US and the UK) that arguments are taken as a sign that a relationship is breaking down. We need to understand that it is the accompanying behaviors that turn an argument toxic rather than the argument itself.  

Much of the advice I see about handling conflict on a virtual team (and here I switch to the more emotionally charged term ‘conflict’) can be summed up as: deal with it immediately.  I have a lot of sympathy with that view.  Virtual conflict can easily become toxic because of increased opportunities for misunderstanding, and the longer time it takes to handle conflict constructively.  But . . . before adopting ‘immediate response’ as a universal principle, it might be best to understand the type of conflict being surfaced in the virtual team. 

Here are some conflicts that I think need to be given a chance to ‘breathe’ because new insights and possibilities might emerge:

Data: Conflicts about data gathering, interpretations, relevance and importance.

Interests:  Conflicts caused by the perceived incompatibility of needs and wants

Process: Conflicts about tasks- what to do, when, where, and how

Structural: Conflicts caused by forces outside of the team, e.g., organizational policy changes, or changes in the economic environment.

What about Interpersonal Conflicts (e.g., conflicts arising from different personalities, styles, cultures, values)? From my experience, learning about each other needs to be upfront and ongoing. Everyone on the team needs to have their emotional antennae on full power because these types of conflicts are often masked or even hidden on virtual teams.  Unless brought to the surface and acknowledge quickly these conflicts can quickly become toxic.

Whatever the source of disagreement/conflict the only productive ways forward are built on respect, patience, curiosity, and learning – not knee-jerk suppression or denial.

Think about what Daniel Kahnneman says above: “neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said.”  Right there, you have respect, patience, curiosity, and learning.

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