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Improving the Performance of Top Management Teams

Even the most seasoned executives may have strongly opposing views about the wisest course of action for an organization, particularly given their diverse personal backgrounds or previous immersion in other corporate cultures. But such differences in approach don't necessarily lead to conflicts that are unproductive and damaging to an organization. To investigate such issues, the authors conducted a study of the organizational values of the top management teams in 31 companies. (As defined by the authors, organizational values are the objectives that an individual or group believes are important in running a business, such as industry leadership, employee welfare, and profit maximization.)

The authors investigated two specific types of team conflict: task and relationship. Task conflict is characterized by substantive, issue-related differences in opinion. This type of disagreement can be beneficial when it ensures that a greater number of possible solutions are explored and that ideas are battle-tested within the group before significant resources are deployed. In contrast, relationship conflict -- characterized by disagreements over personalized, individually oriented matters -- is generally detrimental. It corrodes trust, hinders communication, slows the acceptance of ideas and leads to isolation and politicization among group members.

When it comes to both task and relationship conflicts, the study results showed that behavior is driven by perception rather than reality. Specifically, the greater the perceived difference in organizational values among members of a top management team and their CEO the greater the conflict. Interestingly, any actual dissimilarity was not a factor. Thus, the bottom line is that many top management teams are unnecessarily encountering difficulties because of members' faulty assumptions. To lessen this tendency, the authors advise companies to consider the following: establish an appropriate atmosphere for the team; because perceptions become reality, understand and manage them; investigate the gaps between perceptions and reality; and act decisively to correct gross misperceptions.

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