How conflict can contribute to effective decision making

February 21st, 2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “How conflict can contribute to effective decision making”
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Most of us get decision making all wrong. Why? We usually take the least productive approach: advocacy. It happens when we argue our position with a passion that prevents us from weighing opposing views.

In this case, we use to downplay our position’s weaknesses to boost our chances of “winning.” The consequences? Fractious exchanges that discourage innovative thinking and stifle diverse, valuable viewpoints.

Try to contrast advocacy with inquiry— a much more productive decision-making approach. With inquiry, you can carefully consider a variety of options, work with others to discover the best solutions, and stimulate creative thinking rather than suppressing dissension. The payoff? High-quality decisions that advance your company’s objectives, and that you reach in a timely manner and implement effectively.

Inquiry isn’t easy. You must promote constructive conflict and accept ambiguity. You also must balance divergence during early discussions with unity during implementation. How to accomplish this feat? Master the “three C’s” of decision making: conflict, consideration, and closure.


Conflict during decision making takes two forms: cognitive (relating to the substance of the work) and affective (stemming from interpersonal friction). The first is crucial to effective decision making; the second, destructive. To increase cognitive conflict while decreasing affective:

  • Require vigorous debate. As a rule, ask tough questions and expect well-framed responses. Pose unexpected theoretical questions that stimulate productive thinking.
  • Prohibit language that triggers defensiveness. Preface contradictory remarks or questions with phrases that remove blame and fault. (“Your arguments make good sense, but let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.”)
  • Break up natural coalitions. Assign people to tasks without consideration of traditional loyalties. Require people with different interests to work together.
  • Shift individuals out of well-worn grooves. During decision making, ask people to play functional or managerial roles different from their own
  • Challenge stalemated participants to revisit key information. Ask them to examine underlying assumptions and gather more facts.



To gain your team’s acceptance and support of a decision-making outcome, ensure that they perceive the decision making process as fair. How? Demonstrate consideration throughout the process:

  • At the outset, convey openness to new ideas and willingness to accept different views. 
  • During the discussion, listen attentively. Make eye contact and show patience while others explain their positions. Take notes, ask questions, and probe for deeper explanations.
  • Afterwards, explain the rationale behind your decision. Detail the criteria you used to select a course of action. Spell out how each participant’s arguments affected the final decision.



In addition to stimulating constructive conflict and showing consideration, bring the decision process to closure at the appropriate time. Watch for two problems:

  • Deciding too early. Worried about being dissenters, decision participants may readily accept the first plausible option rather than thoughtfully analyzing options. Unstated objections surface later—preventing cooperative action during the crucial implementation stage.

Watch for latent discontent in body language—furrowed brows, crossed arms, the curled-up posture of defiance. Call for a break, encourage each dissenter to speak up, then reconvene. 

  • Deciding too late. Warring factions face-off, restating their positions repeatedly. Or, striving for fairness, people insist on hearing every view and resolving every question before reaching closure.

To escape these endless loops, announce a decision. Accept that the decision-making process is ambiguous and that you’ll never have complete unequivocal data.


Adapted from What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions, by David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto, Harvard Business Review OnPoint, 

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