I’m guessing that it wouldn’t surprise you to find out that the worst performing teams are in constant conflict. But what if I were to tell you that the highest performing teams are also in constant conflict? Both points are true. How is that possible? How can it be that a high performing team finds itself in conflict as much as an underperforming team?

The simple answer is that the type of conflict in which low performing teams engage is different than the type of conflict in which high performing teams engage. While there are many different names across conflict-oriented literature for these two types of conflict, the most common are affective conflict and cognitive conflict. Low performing teams often have a high degree of affective conflict, and high performing teams often have a similarly high degree of cognitive conflict. Let’s look at both more closely.

Affective Conflict

Affective conflict is most often emotionally, role or relationship based. Very often the root of the conflict lies in the notion of “who” will do something or “how” that something will be done. Arguments about "who" does something between colleagues is a struggle for primacy and offers no value to the firm; at best it is just wasted time relative to other endeavors and at worst (and most commonly) it creates ill will and a desire not to work together for the common good. Discussions regarding "how" something should be done is often seen as micromanagement from a boss or unwanted intrusion from a colleague. The results are almost always detrimental and include diminished team cohesion, restricted team judgement and as a result almost always lower overall team and company performance.

You can typically tell when you are in an affective conflict situation as your heart rate will increase, you will begin to anger, your body will flood your system with cortisol, and you will experience many of the effects of the “fight or flight” syndrome. Similarly, when you observe teams involved in affective conflict you will note raised voices, flushed faces, and exaggerated body movements. Affective conflict is bad for people, teams, and companies.

Cognitive Conflict

Cognitive conflict often involves “what” should be done, by “when” it needs to be accomplished, and “why” something is necessary. As one might interpret from the explanation above, cognitive conflict is very often constructive in the early phases as it provides focus ("what"), illuminates necessary timelines ("when") and inspires debate regarding the necessity (the “why”). When engaged in and handled properly, it often leads to higher levels of performance within a team as the resulting debates help to at first increase the strategic alternatives and help teams coalesce on focused areas of engagement.

“Properly handled” is the key phrase however, as when cognitive conflict is not facilitated properly it can escalate into affective conflict when teams move to discussion of “who” and “how”.

Very high performing teams intuitively attempt to stay in a constant state of light cognitive conflict. They engage in brainstorming sessions to unlock the experiential diversity power of the team and engage in focus sessions that take the output of brainstorming into prioritization meetings to create roadmaps for execution.

The Path to Success – Maximize Cognitive Conflict and Minimize Affective Conflict

One of the most important jobs of any manager or executive is maximizing the value of what their team and company produces. For lower-level managers that means maximizing throughput and quality while minimizing the cost to achieve it. For executives it means the same but on a much larger scale across the depth and breadth of their organization. To do that, each must minimize the frequency and amplitude of affective conflict and maximize the frequency and duration of cognitive conflict. Our recommendations on team construction are built to help engender higher levels of cognitive conflict through experiential diversity.

While organization construction can help engender higher levels of cognitive conflict, it alone is insufficient; we must also have great management practices to encourage the right conversations and to limit their escalation. Similarly, we must also identify affective conflict and shut it down early in its formation. Below we identify tricks and techniques to maximize cognitive conflict value and minimize affective conflict occurrence.

Tips to Minimize Affective Conflict

  1. Create cross functional empowered teams

    Read more about the reasons for this construction and how to create cross functional teams aligned to architecture and outcomes here.

  2. Don’t force employees to resolve differences – make managers do their jobs

    How many times have you witnessed a conflict between peers and heard a manager tell the employees to “figure it out yourselves”? Such an activity is an abdication of a manager’s responsibility. We know from research that the best, fastest and most effective way to end affective conflict is for a manager to immediately put an end to the conflict and resolve the underlying role-based uncertainty upon which the conflict is based.

    Do not fall prey to the oft quoted and dangerously incorrect notion that conflict avoidance or aversion is a character flaw in employees. In fact, when it comes to affective conflict, you want your employees to absolutely avoid it and for your managers to correct it.

  3. Implement OKRs with clear accountability

    OKRs work when properly implemented and when focused on the desired outcomes of business agility, transparency, agility, focus and accountability. But as with any other process, when implemented poorly and without attention to the outcomes listed above, they are likely to fail. Ensure that you implement your OKRs to achieve clear responsibility and accountability for specific activities and outcomes to help eliminate the opportunity for affective conflict.

  4. Create role clarity and where necessary implement role clarity tools

    If you can’t organize yourself and implement a focus and accountability enabling business process such as OKRs, you may need to leverage a process such as RACI, RASCI or one of their many permutations.

    The RACI/RASCI family of processes exist to help create clarity around who makes decisions, who is responsible for action, who should be consulted, who needs to help in implementation and who is accountable for outcomes. While I believe this is a pain killer that numbs the effect of ineffective organization structure and business processes, to the extent that you cannot align and implement accountability enabling organization processes then RACI/RASCI can help reduce affective conflict.

  5. Minimize debate on who or how.

    Managers decide who and make it clear; how is accomplished by the team that “owns” the outcome. Train your executive and management team on how to effectively avoid affective conflict situations and enable cognitive conflict situations.

  6. Insist that discussions center on data – not opinions.

    In our world of opinion masquerading as news or fact, it’s often hard to remember that there is a difference between data, facts, and opinions. We suggest eliminating the term “fact” as it too so often is just an opinion masquerading as truth. Further, foster a culture of questioning statements and asking for supporting data.

    • Ensure managers understand that they are responsible for clearly defining WHO does something.
    • Ensure managers and executives enable teams to determine the HOW something should happen by delivering outcomes rather than approaches. In doing so, the team will feel more empowered to achieve said outcome.
    • Ensure managers are willing to engage and help promote discussions around WHAT must be done, WHY something needs to happen, and by WHEN it should happen.

Tips to Maximize Cognitive Conflict

  1. Ensure both short duration and long duration teams are experientially diverse and comprised of multiple skillsets and perspectives.

    Again, our whitepaper on team construction is a great place to get started.

  2. Eliminate autocratic environments and autocratic leaders.

    Top-down leadership can work in environments where innovation is unnecessary and potentially even counterproductive, such as the operation of a nuclear power facility. But where you want to maximize the opportunity for both sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation, you must open the funnel and sources of that innovation. Autocratic environments stifle creativity, lower morale, increase churn and destroy ownership, accountability, creativity, and innovation. No one will engage in cognitive conflict if the decision is going to be made by a higher authority.

  3. Eliminate brilliant jerks

    Reed Hastings said it best – don’t allow brilliant jerks on your team.

    Besides destroying team morale and lowering overall productivity within teams, brilliant jerks are the strong wind that snuffs out the early sparks of innovation on your teams.

  4. Invite discussion and debate on “when”, “what” and “why”

    Train managers to properly empower teams with outcomes, and to foster the types of communication that help spark cognitive conflict. Focusing on WHEN, WHAT and WHY in team discussions all help to do this.

  5. Closely monitor all cognitive conflict environments (like brainstorming sessions) and ensure they do not escalate to Affective Conflict.

    As indicated earlier, even the best brainstorming session (an example of cognitive conflict) can escalate out of control and become affective conflict focusing on WHO does something or specifically HOW it should be done. Ensure facilitators, managers and executives are all properly trained and are monitoring for this shift. Be prepared to step in and shut down affective conflict.

  6. Strive for as diverse a team as possible

    Diversity in experience is a key driver and antecedent of cogntive conflict. To achieve it we must create an experientially diverse team consisting of diversity in gender, age, ethnicity, tenure, life perspectives and skill sets to name a few. Teams that are constructed with all of the skills necessary to accomplish a cross functional task and which are diverse in multiple dimensions achieve the highest levels of cognitive conflict

Want to learn more about how to design organizations and put in place business processes to maximize cognitive conflict and minimize affective conflict in your company or organization? Give AKF Partners a call!