Though too much conflict on a team can hurt performance, certain types of opposing views can be beneficial, new research finds.
Teams with one employee who is able to subtly present an opposing view perform better than teams with members who all agree, according to a study set to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
"A devil's advocate in a team can help team members to more deeply process information, Lindred Greer, one of the study's authors and a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, told Business News Daily. "When someone presents an alternative perspective, it encourages members to consider other angles of a problem, to think more deeply about their own views and perhaps to be stimulated to explore solutions they would not have considered before."
In the end, the devil's advocate helps teams improve the depth and quality of their communication processes, and the quality of their eventual performance outcomes, Greer said. The key is in how the opposing opinion is presented and perceived by the other team members. If the devil's advocate can present his or her rival thoughts in a carefully constructed way, the diverging opinion isn't seen as a conflict, Greer said.
In previous research, Greer discovered that more than half of the time, when workers had someone disagree with them on the task, they were likely to take it personally and become emotional. [Teams Work Better When Employees Care About Each Other ]
"Once conflicts become personal and emotional, people become irrational, are distracted and can't process information fully," Greer said. "Therefore, it's critical for a devil's advocate to present a divergent opinion in a way that people will not take personally or emotionally — that they will hear it simply as a different piece of information, or as a nonthreatening alternative way to view solutions to their task."
When an opposing opinion is seen as confrontational, teams perform worse, Greer noted.
"If an opposing opinion comes across as a direct challenge, especially a personal challenge, to the other members, this can easily turn into a personal conflict in the team that will distract and derail the team from task accomplishment," she said.
The research was based on two studies. In the first, 571 postgraduate students at a business school in India were assigned to 120 teams in order to participate in a decision-making game. When the game was complete, the students rated the conflict on their teams. For the second part of the study, researchers surveyed 320 members of 41 teams at a financial corporation in the Netherlands.
The two studies revealed that teams that had one member who carefully presented an opposing opinion outperformed teams where all members agreed, as well as those where multiple members disagreed.
The researchers believe the study shows that when business leaders are putting work teams together, they should make sure at least one member is able to thoughtfully present an opposing view.
"Encourage devil's advocacy, but make sure the person playing that role is emotionally intelligent and well trained in communication and conflict management," Greer said. "Having someone that views the world in a different way — and can express these views in a constructive manner — can help spark your team to a higher level of performance than they could have obtained otherwise."
Researchers also encourage employers to consider providing employees with conflict management skills training.
"The ability to express differences of an opinion in a careful manner can be the make-or-break success factor that determines the ability of your team to succeed and flourish," Greer said.
The study was co-authored by Ruchi Sinha, of the University of South Australia; Niranjan Janardhanan, of the University of Texas; Donald Conlon, of Michigan State University; and Jeff Edwards, of the University of North Carolina.