Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cooperative Controversy Over Competitive Controversy

How do you get a group to make better decisions? In Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Applications, Robert S. Feldman writes how cooperative controversy is an effective technique for enhancing group effectiveness.

Avoid, Cooperate or Compete
Feldman writes:

"Although common sense might suggest that controversy in groups could lead to poor decisions and dissatisfaction among those in the groups could lead to poor decisions and dissatisfaction among those in the group, some recent evidence suggests that controversy may actually enhance group decision making capabilities – but only if the controversy is place in the context of the cooperation. Tjosvold (1982) placed experienced business managers in one of three conditions: an avoidance of controversy condition (in which opinion differences were to be smoothed over), a cooperative context controversy condition (in which the aim was a “frank discussion of differences”), and a competitive controversy condition (in which subjects were discussing their opinions openly, but also were to attempt to make their opinion prevail)."

Cooperative Controversy Over Competitive Controversy
Feldman writes:

"The results of the study showed quite clearly that the least effective approach was competitive controversy. Subjects had less awareness and based only on their own point of view. In contrast, cooperative controversy resulted in increased understanding and acceptance of other’s arguments, and the ultimate decisions were more complex and integrated. Results in the “no conflict” condition were not as favorable as the cooperative controversy condition; while the managers did try to take the arguments of the others into account, the arguments were not understood very well. "
Why Does Cooperative Controversy Work
Fedlman writes:
"Why, as the results of the Tjosvold (1982) study suggest, should the promotion of cooperative controversy be an effective technique for enhancing group effectiveness? One reason is that group members gain a better understanding of opposing views when cooperative controversy is encouraged. Moreover, uncertainty about the correct solution to the problem, which occurs when controversy about the problem is aroused, leads to an active search for more information, which can enhance the quality of the solution ultimately arrived at (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1979)."

Additional Information
I found the following links helpful to explain cooperative controversies:

Key Take Aways
Beating up an idea is good. Resistance makes it stronger. The trick is how to beat up an idea together versus promoting individual ideas. The other trick is how to keep it from being personal where people will get defensive of their ideas. When people get defensive, their fight-or-flight response kicks in and instead of more effective thinking, you get emotional responses.

  • Wear a hat. The most effective technique I've found to help a group use cooperative controversy is to "wear a hat." The team puts on their Devil's advocate hat and beats the idea up toether. We then wear another hat to work together to figure out ways we can make the idea work. The hat makes it comfortable for people to switch perspectives. This is along the lines of Six Thinking Hats.
  • Use focusing questions. Rather than teach the team about the various "hats," I simply use a list of questions that represent the different perspectives, and we move through the questions as a team.

Wearing "hats" and using questions to move through the perspectives helps avoid people defending or promoting their ideas, it promotes more robust thinking, it keeps people from getting defensive, and it leverages a team of minds cooperating together.