Does every team need a skilled contrarian? Maybe so, based on new research from Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“It’s important for teams to have a devil’s advocate who is constructive and careful in communication, who carefully and artfully facilitates discussion,” says Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB.
Greer and her research colleagues examined a dynamic in teams, which they call skewed conflict. In it, one person — or a small minority group acting together — carefully and constructively points out the differences and weaknesses in a team’s approach to a problem.
When this divergent opinion is presented in a nuanced way in which other members don’t even see the difference of opinion as a conflict, it can provide for a healthy disagreement, the research shows.
“Take for example a start-up team where one member saw in a previous startup that coding the website in a certain way would lead to problems later on,” Greer says.
When the team member — the only one who has this insight — questions the majority view in a non-confrontational manner, it leads to a reflective discussion, she says. And in the end, the team produces a better product.
In this case, when the other members were asked about the discussion afterward, they didn’t even realize there had been a conflict.
Indeed, teams with a lone minority dissenter outperform other teams where all members agree, according to the research that Greer conducted with 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.
They also are more successful than teams in which all members disagree and fall prey to escalated, emotional, difficult-to-resolve team brawls.
Researchers and practitioners have long struggled to understand how to compose and manage teams that have “healthy” conflicts, and the concept of skewed conflict provides a potential solution to understanding the roots and dynamics of such constructive disagreements in teams.
That devil’s advocate — which could be an individual or a small minority — has the sensitivity to see differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways. The researchers came to their conclusions in two studies. In the first, 571 post-grad students at a top business school in India were assigned to 120 teams. They were asked to participate in a decision-making game and then asked to rate the conflict on their teams. In a second study, the researchers surveyed members of 41 pre-existing teams at a large financial corporation in the Netherlands.
One of the most interesting ideas to emerge from the research is that past academic work might have missed the point in understanding whether conflict helps or hurts teams. Past research has focused on whether teams with conflicts do better or worse than teams with no conflicts, and has neglected to examine the structure of conflicts in teams as being critical.
For managers, the research points to the benefits of constructing a team where there is at least one member with high emotional intelligence who is willing to play the devil’s advocate role. Having such a vocal minority can help teams obtain the holy grail of team dynamics — “healthy” conflicts that improve team creativity, decisions, and, outcomes.