Wouldn’t it be nice to work at a college or university where everyone gets along? You might desire a workplace with no conflict, or a department in which everyone is agreeable, but that could actually be a symptom of an unhealthy environment. Problems could be deferred or worsened, potential for innovation and student success might not be reached, and everyone could be complicit in failing to meet the mission of the institution.
This is not to suggest that you should prefer to work somewhere with heated department meetings and a combative relationship between faculty and administration, but having some productive conflict is a sign of a flourishing institution and individual career growth.
What is Productive Conflict?
To understand the seemingly paradoxical concept of productive conflict, it’s perhaps better to first recognize what it is not. Unproductive conflict is when interdependent parties with conflicting ideas are repeatedly frustrated, unheard, or afraid to share dissenting opinions because they seem incompatible with one another. Instead of having open exchanges, people might argue over frivolous matters and resort to sarcasm, denial, or abusive language.
Productive conflict interaction depends on flexibility to reach a solution where all parties feel that they have gained something, according to authors of the book, “Working Through Conflict,” Joseph Folger, Marshall Scott Poole, and Randall Stutman. “All parties believe they can achieve important goals,” they wrote. “(Productive conflict) exhibits a sustained effort to bridge the apparent incompatibility of positions. This is in marked contrast to destructive conflicts, where the interaction is premised on participants’ belief that one side must win and the other must lose.”
Productive Conflict in Higher Education
This all might seem like business game theory, but what does productive conflict look like in a higher education work environment? Conflict might arise from things such as hiring decisions and meeting standards for accreditation, to brewing coffee in the breakroom.
“We’ll have these productive discussions about what kind of technology we should be using and what that does to the curriculum,” said Robin Henager, associate dean at Whitworth University’s School of Business and associate professor of economics and finance. “Like any university, our mission is very student-focused, so it always comes back to what’s best for the students. We challenge each other in ways that I think are healthy, but it’s not always easy.”
A 2020 study of department chairs by Sharon Kruse from Washington State University showed that balancing destructive and productive conflict within a department “was, nearly universally, the tension chairs felt least able to reconcile and confront.”
Too little conflict can also be a problem. Conformity, especially in the early stages of decision making and conflict resolution, could be a sign of another harmful workplace outcome: “groupthink.”
What is Groupthink?
Groupthink occurs when group members, while seeking a consensus, tend to agree with the most dominant perspective and make irrational decisions instead of challenging one another’s perspectives and considering logical alternatives.
“There are many reasons for groupthink: it can be poor leadership, stress if you’re in a hurry to make a decision or you have financial issues, or it can be because of homogeneity of thoughts,” said Cindy LaCom, a professor of gender studies at Slippery Rock University. “If there are 15 people in a group and 12 of them share similar values, there’s this groupthink phenomenon that makes their shared opinion seem like the right one.”
Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, who first used the term “groupthink” in 1972, observed how intelligent groups of people, often all having similar backgrounds, made poor decisions from not considering opinions of outside groups.
Groupthink is not a bad thing, however, if you interpret it as cohesion among groups, especially when they align with their organization’s mission and core values. Cohesive groups operate both more effectively and efficiently than those who struggle to reach a consensus. This brings to mind the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Cohesion is also a sign of a good culture, but as organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in “Originals,” there’s a fine line between having a strong culture and operating like a cult.
In strong work cultures, according to Grant, alternative solutions are considered and creativity is unleashed. People should not be punished for dissenting views, nor should they be expected to conform to the culture. Rather, they should be empowered to contribute to the culture.
Groupthink in Higher Education
Harmful results of groupthink happen when a president, dean, or manager surrounds themselves with people who only agree with them and there’s no psychological safety for subordinates to question decisions or consider other options or outside views.
In Henager’s department meetings at Whitworth, they embrace outside perspectives, whether that’s from staff, such as a director of external relations and internships, or their School of Business’ advisory board that consists of industry experts.
Administrative staff in higher education are just as susceptible to groupthink as other industries, being that they function at a smaller scale within the organization, such as housing, finance, marketing, or development. But what about faculty?
To outsiders, the professoriate would appear cultish with its rigorous credentialing and specialized departments hiring their own seemingly like-minded individuals with similar values. But faculty carry a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and expertise, even within their own academic disciplines. Academics, by their nature, are inclined to question the status quo and people’s widely held beliefs as part of their professional practice of inquiry. Those who work in the academy can imagine the trope of the “eccentric professor” who challenges authority or resists convention.
“There are egos in all workplaces, but faculty, because of their specialties and expertise, bring ego to the table which (prevents) groupthink,” Henager said. “We’re bold enough to say, ‘I don’t agree with something,’ or ‘I think we should look at this differently.'”
Overall, higher education is historically known for its commitment to academic freedom and shared governance between faculty and administration. Also, guided by an educational mission, colleges and universities are set up to foster a work environment where ideas are openly expressed and considered, as opposed to narrowing decisions based only on the market or the company’s bottom line.
A way to increase productive conflict and prevent groupthink is by creating a diverse workplace. Having people from various backgrounds, whether that’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or veteran status, increases the diversity of thought and perspectives within groups.
Even at a Christian college such as Whitworth, where faculty applicants are required to write a statement of faith, diversity is an essential part of its values. The essay that faculty write, Henager said, doesn’t lead to conformity but allows for individuals to share their personal perspective and faith journey in the context of truths held by the institution and its mission to integrate faith and learning. “It is through the inclusion and experiences of others from diverse points of view,” he wrote Whitworth’s president, Beck Taylor“that we often begin to see dimensions of life previously unseen.”
But when it comes to career satisfaction and success, what the institution values is not as important as what employees encounter in their daily work.
“At most universities, we function at microcultural levels,” LaCom said. “The departmental culture is the one that matters. I don’t care so much about what (the university) is doing. I care if I have a department chair who is a jerk or if I have a person in my department who tends to micromanage and speak for everybody.”
LaCom, who cofounded a consultancy to help businesses improve their culturesaid that organizations need better training for leaders and team members to listen and ask better questions, even if that means appointing someone to the role of devil’s advocate to consider other views, or collecting anonymous comments from the group to correct for the imbalances of power. and lack of psychological safety when considering solutions to a problem.
“Academics are not trained to navigate difficult conversations,” LaCom said. “But it is important for any department to survive.”
Actionable Advice: Detection
If you’re interviewing for jobs, you should ask specific questions to detect a department that enables productive conflict and is anti-groupthink.
“You could ask about diversity of perspective in the department culture,” said LaCom, who acknowledged that you might get a response with empty platitudes. “Instead, you should ask about new curricular innovations that the department practiced in the last five years. Ask how much growth you will have for curricular development for creating a class that hasn’t yet been taught. Ask what kind of work (the department ) is doing with community partners. Ask about the presence of student voices in the curriculum and departmental choices.”
For those currently working, pay closer attention to the interactions within your groups — conversations that are taking place or those that are not occurring.
“You can tell an unhealthy work environment when there’s no laughter,” Henager said with a bit of laughter of her own. “But I would say that you should be concerned if there’s chatter going on behind the scenes and not everyone is involved in the conversation.”
Actionable Advice: Execution
When having difficult conversations or making decisions as a group, you can’t go wrong, no matter your power within an organization, when approaching it from the mission of the department or institution.
“We take our mission statement and then we talk about that before we start thinking about what I might want to do or what somebody else wants to do,” Henager said. “If there’s an idea that doesn’t align with a mission or the strategic plan, you have solid ground to stand on to challenge it. Asking if something is a student-focused solution raises great conversations.”
Arriving at a consensus that fits the mission of a department or institution is not conformity. There are many different ways to achieve the goal, some that will require productive conflict. Thinking as a group means exploring all those ways without falling into the trap of groupthink.