conflict management

Case studies

Conflict management in innovation processes

German academic research, April 2014

Conflict management is a complex area, but when managers use tailored approaches in different phases of the innovation process, conflict can be a strong driver of performance. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

Vibrant debate can be constructive if team members share different views respectfully, but destructive if not managed well. Unique perspectives are an asset but how can leaders effectively manage team members who have strong and clashing perspectives? This scenario is common in creative-minded teams, especially in the field of innovation which is powered by experimentation. What’s the secret sauce which differentiates high and low performing diverse teams?

Recent research conducted by Dr Schulze (The Humboldt University of Berlin), Stade (Technical University of Berlin) and Netzel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen) explores how tension when innovating can be addressed through the use of effective conflict management.

Dr Schulze et al’s research shows that high-performing teams are transparent in how they deal with conflict in order to maintain strong working connections in the long term. At the same time, teams that have the strongest results in terms of ‘project newness’, or the ‘project vision’ phase, deal with conflict through bolder decision making that is motivated by the end vision.

Aim

The aim of this study was to understand social conflict in the context of innovation. The study authors collected and analysed data on conflict resolution trends among established researchers, using reliable models of conflict management.

Method

Data was collected from 152 researches who work in reputable German institutions. The researchers were grouped as either ‘high performers’ or ‘standard performers’ based on the number of publications in prestigious journals they had or whether they had six or more patents.

The authors formulated a questionnaire to ask the researchers how they would behave in certain situations.

The questionnaire was developed based on the dual-concern model of conflict management, which considers the following conflict resolution styles:

Dominating – high respect for self, low respect for others
Problem solving – high respect for self, high respect for others
Compromise – medium respect for self, medium respect for others
Obliging – low respect for self, high respect for others
Avoidance – low respect for self, low respect for others.

There were two key hypotheses:

  • The problem-solving approach is the more effective style in order to maintain productivity and working relationships
  • The dominating style is more successful in creating new products. The research also sought to address how flexible a leader should be in terms of their conflict management style.

Findings

The three key findings were as follows:

(i) The ‘high performer’ groups used the problem-solving approach significantly more than the ‘low performer’ groups

There was a significant difference between the style used by the high-performer researchers and the standard performers. The high performers distinctly used the problem-solving style more often to resolve conflicts, and they used the obliging style less often.

The problem solving style involves collaboration and integration and through this, stronger team bonds can result and long-term negative effects of conflict can be limited. It requires high respect for self and high respect for others, so it is more time consuming and is only successful through active commitment from the leader.

(ii) The dominating conflict management style was positively associated with project newness

In testing ‘project newness’, the data show that a dominating conflict management style was effective. The word ‘dominating’ has a negative connotation in everyday language, however in the context of conflict management and innovation it suggests going strongly in the direction of one idea, as opposed to actively seeking middle ground. By going in a unified way towards one person’s vision, teams were able to produce more novel products.

(iii) Conflict management is complex and the most effective style to apply depends on many  project factor  

The most effective style of conflict management depends on several factors, notably the phase of the project, the relationships between roles of those involved and the nature of the conflict. Flexibility and awareness are necessary in order to identify influencing aspects and adjust the style of conflict management accordingly.

Implications

The dominating and problem-solving styles of conflict management were preferred among high performers instead of compromise, avoidance or obliging. It can be noted that these two styles both require “high respect for self”. It suggests that leaders should always add their point of view and actively share their approaches when conflict arises, as opposed to seeking middle ground or trying to agree too quickly.

Insightfully the research shows that one size does not fit all and different phases of the innovation process require a different approach to managing conflict. When the conflict is around the project vision, leaders are advised to encourage the team member to get on board with a single direction (dominating). However, for detail-oriented conflicts around a task approach, then leaders can encourage collaboration and integration (problem solving).

Note that problem solving is different to compromise. Compromise suggests finding middle ground, whereas problem solving suggests adding elements from different perspectives and elaboration.

This article describes conflict as a common occurrence in diverse teams and urges institutions to prepare their employees to deal with conflict. Training programs and a transparent acknowledgement of conflict can limit destructive conflict and prevent employees from internalising frustrations. This would be especially useful for junior employees who have been shown to be more sensitive to conflict in teams.

To read the full article, see Schulze, A. D., Stade, M. J. C. and Netzel, J. (2014), Conflict and Conflict Management in Innovation Processes in the Life Sciences. Creativity and Innovation Management, 23: 57–75.

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