Minimizing conflicts within top teams of companies

Stanford researchers have shown in a new study how to minimize conflicts within top teams of companies, a problem that can damage businesses, especially when high-flying team members have to work together.

Studies over the last twenty years have demonstrated how power can have a clearly noticeable effect on people.

Individuals who find themselves at or near the top of companies have a tendency to place their own goals and desires above everything else, become increasingly less concerned with other people’s perspective, disregard the feelings of others, and become less polite.

Their actions slant towards preserving their own power, which can lead to aggressive moves if they feel threatened.

The majority of businesses are unaware of how damaging these “high-powered Napoleons” can be for the company or organization, especially when you have a bunch of power-crazy individuals working together within the same team.

Lindred Greer, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and colleagues say that the research they have published over the last three years “paints a bleak picture for organizations that ignore the damage that power run amok can do.”

When high-fliers work with others in a team and see them as a potential threat, they tend to lash out, and conflict ensues. Holding onto power is highly valued, so much so for people in the top tier of organizations that they will fight to retain their rung of the hierarchical ladder.

Teams with high-powered members often less effective

The authors wrote “We find the power conflicts in management teams are so common that teams you’d expect to be the best, such as management teams, can actually be less effective than those lower down on the organizational chart.”

For organizations that rely on the most skilled and experienced employees, this is at best a huge loss of potential. At worst, serious conflicts emerge, people get fired and projects fail to meet targets. “Companies that ignore the power struggles eventually pay the price,” Greer writes.

The study – “The bigger they are, the harder they fall: Linking team power, team conflict, and performance” – published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, suggests that businesses and organizations take a King Arthur-like approach to management and leadership models in order to minimize power struggles within their top teams.

The authors say that teams in which the roles of power and leadership are clearly established, as well as teams where each individual’s perceptions of his or her own power match their teammates’ perception of it, tend to have better performance results.

Greer and colleagues gathered and analyzed data from surveys and archival data from a multinational financial institution and a telecommunications company, and confirmed their results in a laboratory setting.

Low-powered teams, not high-powered ones, need a hierarchy

The researchers found key differences in how high-powered and low-powered teams function. In low-powered teams a hierarchy helps, but not in high-powered teams.

A low-powered team without a hierarchy becomes directionless if a vacuum develops.

However, in high-powered teams a hierarchy has the opposite effect. Ambitious people see the hierarchy as a ladder to fight over, there is more conflict among team members and less useful work gets done.

It is not an easy task to establish an egalitarian culture in a high-powered team. Although you can change the environment in which the players are operating, you are much less likely to be able to transform their characters, or rid them of their hunger for power.

Three steps to minimize team-member fighting

The authors put forward three steps to minimize conflict among members of a high-powered team. King Arthur, for example, when dealing with a bunch of highly ambitious knights, had them sit at a round table and achieved peace and cooperation.

Greer writes “In the medieval legend, each knight had a role to play: Sir Lancelot was the greatest champion, Sir Galahad was the purest of heart, Sir Gareth killed the Red Knight and so on.”

Companies and organizations can minimize conflict within their management teams by pursuing a path toward shared power and clearly defined roles:

1. Roles must be defined, discussed and reinforced

Management team problems tend to disappear when members can reach clear, accepted agreement regarding roles. These need to be regularly reinforced.

When a CEO is leaving, if he or she names a successor the likelihood of those in the lower executive ranks positioning themselves for the top rung might be reduced.

Each team member’s expertise must be recognized and deferred to. People who are confident in their role tend to feel less threatened.

2. Shared decision-making

High-powered team members feel less threatened by other team members if decision-making is shared. “Shared power reduces the real or perceived power differentials among members,” Greer writes.

There are several ways decision-making can be done in a democratic manner, including informal votes or agreeing by consensus.

3. Provide conflict training and foster a culture of respect

Team members who are adequately trained in conflict management are better at identifying the components of conflict and addressing the real underlying issues.

Power struggles commonly surface when discussing mundane or routine matters, such as when to hold meetings.

Fostering a culture of respect during such discussions may help reduce tensions and conflicts. Finding creative ways to slice up the hierarchy pie so that each team member has power, but not in the domain he or she wants, may also help.

Greer writes “Recognizing which team members are engaged in a power struggle and resolving it quickly and respectfully is artistry possessed by a few great leaders. Our research showed how worthwhile it is for an organization to invest in fostering that ability.”

Leaders of companies and board members who ignore these power struggles within their management teams do so at their organization’s peril. Napoleon was left to his own devices and ravaged Europe. What effects would one or several Napoleons have on your company?