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Managing Conflict in Organisations: Have you enough of the right kind

Michael O’Neill is a Biotech entrepreneur, currently R&D Director of his own company Inflection Biosciences. He is also a chartered psychologist and has worked as a consultant and technical and organisational issues in the biosciences industry for many years. He is co-editor of the book “A Biotech Manager’s Handbook”, which is a practical guide to some key areas of managing bioscience companies. In this article, he offers some thoughts on how leaders set the tone for the organisational style of their companies and in particular how they manage conflict within the company.

A classic study in the 1960’s (Boulding, 1964) took several groups of managers who were given a complex problem-solving task. They were told that at the end of the task, a panel of experts would judge their performance based on the solutions that each team of managers came up with. The groups were carefully matched for size and composition so that they were as identical as possible in various ways. Before the exercise began the researchers selected at random one member in half of the teams and gave them instructions to act as a “mole”. That is they were to act as a “devil’s advocate” whose role it was to challenge the team’s assumptions and to critique the logic of their arguments. At the end of the exercise, both sets of groups presented their solutions. Without exception, the groups that had the devil’s advocate or “mole” did better than the groups without. They offered more and better solutions to the problems set. This underlines the importance of internal debate within organisations and the value of creative conflict.

The study also showed, however, the cost of this conflict. After a short recess, the teams were gathered together and told that they were now to solve the second set of problems. Before they began, all of the teams were given the opportunity to vote off one member. In every group that had had a devil’s advocate, that person was the one that was voted off, without exception. This is in spite of the fact that having that person in the team is what had given them their advantage over the other teams. Even where we see the benefit of productive conflict in discussion and debate, the problem is that humans as individuals do not like it and try to avoid it. There is a great cost in an organisation to the person who tries to challenge the group think or push back against an idea that has taken hold in the minds of colleagues. Such an oppositional role, however, is essential to the health of an organisation and those who take such risks should be supported by management. Sometimes the leader of the organisation has to be the greatest sceptic. Everyone in the company might be excited by some new data or a new project, but someone needs to keep the team grounded and not let ideas fly without proper examination.

On the other hand, it is very rare that we find an organisation of any size where there are not interpersonal clashes, rivalries and even disputes. Large organisations are legendary for the office politics, the manoeuvring for position and interpersonal rivalries. Large organisations provide endless opportunities for politicking and jockeying for position and generally the people who do well in such organisations have at least a certain amount of skill in dealing with these issues.

The challenge, therefore, is not how to avoid all conflict but to ensure that you have the right kind and amount of conflict in an organisation. Put bluntly, a vigorous and healthy debate is good, letting it descend into antipathy, endless arguments or even sabotage is not so good.

Personal Style and Causes of Conflict

Personal style carries with it preferences for how we think and behave. We have assumptions, often unexamined or unarticulated about how the world should be, we have ideas about hierarchy and of how others should behave and how we should be treated and be expected to behave.

If our personal worldview expects things to be ordered in a certain way, then having these overturned or undermined is a very challenging and even stressful experience. Scientists, for example, tend to invest very personally in theories, disciplines, projects, and even techniques. When the validity or value of these is questioned, normally very rational and self-possessed people can give vent to some very emotional responses. The world order based on the value of one’s own discipline or areas of research is challenged, even obliquely, conflict can arise.

Within certain disciplines, certain personality types will predominate. Toxicologists, for example, by nature tend to be cautious. They have to look out for any possible indicator that a new drug might be harmful in people. Any unusual finding in an animal study could be enough for them to say that a compound should not go forward for clinical testing. Sometimes if the histological change in the experimental animal is small or the relevance to the human condition is not clear, such caution can frustrate other members of the management team of a company whose very future might depend on that molecule’s progression. Likewise, a clinical expert might suggest that the safety profile of a compound is not good enough or the efficacy criteria have not been satisfied in a particular trial. As this can have serious consequences for the project or even the entire company, other managers might question this judgement, sometimes quite vigorously. It is important to separate the role from the person. It is important to understand that the criticism can be well-founded and well-meant.

Scientists rarely take criticism of their data or working methods impartially or objectively. They may feel that it is inappropriate for other scientists especially from other disciplines to challenge their work, violating their assumptions about how others behave. They might feel that their competence as individuals is being questioned, which challenges some of their core beliefs about themselves and their value as a scientist and as individuals. You can see, therefore, how a simple and very objective exchange of information can become a source of personal conflict if it is not properly managed.

If any of this seems familiar you are in a very common scenario in the world of bioscience. In the next instalment, we will offer a few thoughts on how to deal with this.

Part II follows on this blog.

A Biotech Manager’s Handbook: A Practical Guide (Woodhead Publishing Series in Biomedicine) by Michael O’Neill and Michael M. Hopkins (2 May 2012)

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