Falling over ourselves to follow the leader: conceptualizing connections between transformational leader behaviors and dysfunctional team conflict.

Author:Kotlyar, Igor

Recently, there has been growing interest in more fully examining the situational conditions under which the positive effects of charismatic or transformational leadership are actually achieved. The positive impact of transformational leadership on follower performance has received wide support in the literature. However, much less is known about the impact of transformational leadership on team performance. Although a number of authors have attempted to connect transformational leadership with higher levels of team performance, there has been little effort to delineate the relationship between transformational leadership and teamwork processes or skill sets. This article offers a conceptual examination of the potential link between transformational leadership behavior and the generation of dysfunctional team conflict. Although traditionally praised as a powerful and superior form of leadership style, we suggest that transformational leaders have the potential to unwittingly ignite disproportionately high levels of affective team conflict.

Keywords: transformational leader; conflict; team; cognitive conflict; affective conflict; team leadership


Leadership behavior can be instrumental for successful team and organizational functioning and performance (Avolio, Bass, & Jung, 1999; Bass, 1998; De Dreu & Weingart, 2003; Mulvey, Veiga, & Elsass, 1996; Wageman, 1997). With regard to facilitating such success, the literature has traditionally characterized charismatic or transformational leadership (cf. Feinberg, Ostroff, & Burke, 2005) as a superior style of leadership across situations. From its early conceptualization to more recent accounts, references to transformational leadership consistently attribute such leaders with the capacity to have an extraordinary impact on followers (House & Baetz, 1979; Weber, 1947). In addition, the research has offered ample support for the view that charismatic or transformational leaders typically achieve higher levels of individual performance than do those with other styles of leadership (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002).

Whereas the positive impact of transformational leadership on follower performance has received wide support in the literature (Howell & Avolio, 1993), much less is known about the impact of transformational leadership on performance in a work team context (Bass, Avolio, Jung, & Berson, 2003; Dionne, Yammarino, Atwater, & Spangler, 2004). Moreover, there has been little effort to delineate the relationship between transformational leadership and teamwork processes or skill sets (Dionne et al., 2004). The issue of team leadership is particularly salient given the increasing emphasis on decision-making teams in organizations.

Employees throughout organizations are commonly given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process anywhere from problem definition to implementation. Good team decisions are characterized by a high degree of quality and commitment. Previous research indicates that teams that make good decisions are those that manage conflict well (Amason, 1996). Team leaders are in the best position to manage conflict and, therefore, to improve the performance of decision-making teams (Amason, Thompson, Hochwarter, & Harrison, 1995). For example, a team leader can attempt to stimulate disagreement to generate constructive, cognitive conflict (Schwenk & Cosier, 1993). This may involve not only informing the team members of the structured conflict methodology but also motivating them to engage in dialectical interaction. The greater the motivation for making a good decision, the more likely team members are to clarify objectives and to seek and critically evaluate alternatives (e.g., Abelson & Levi, 1985). It is also important for team leaders to help members minimize the likelihood of cognitive conflict degenerating into dysfunctional, affective conflict--team members eventually focusing more on the person than the problem (Janssen, Van De Vliert, & Veenstra, 1999).

Does the strength of transformational leadership translate well into the realm of conflict generation in teams? In this article, we explore the process through which elements of transformational leader behavior can affect conflict generation in decision-making teams. We assert that whereas some elements of transformational leadership behavior can demonstrate a great capacity for motivating team members to constructively debate ideas, other elements of this behavior can ignite dysfunctional conflict. To build our arguments, we first review the notion of conflict in teams and the sources for cognitive and affective conflict. Following that discussion, we consider the role of transformational leader behaviors in triggering cognitive and affective conflict. Overall, our examination is intended to offer a more critical view of transformational leadership and its utility in team decision-making contexts. This view departs from the view perpetuated by the extant leadership literature, which has largely treated transformational leadership as superior to all other forms of leadership style.

Conflict in Decision-Making Teams

Conflict plays a central role in the team decision-making process. Conflict refers to an interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement, or dissonance between two or more interacting individuals (Rahim, 1992). Conflict research commonly recognizes a conceptual distinction between two types of conflict: (a) conflict focused on the substantive issues associated with the team's task, which can involve differences in viewpoints, ideas, and opinions (i.e., cognitive conflict or task conflict) and (b) negative, emotion-driven conflict focused on interpersonal incompatibilities among the team members (i.e., affective or social-emotional conflict) (Janssen et al., 1999; Pelled, 1996).

Cognitive Conflict

Cognitive conflict has been shown to facilitate better decision making and result in higher quality decisions (Schwenk & Cosier, 1993). Cognitive conflict can help people identify and better understand the problem and the issues involved (Amason, 1996; Putnam, 1994), can encourage people to develop new ideas and approaches (R. A. Baron, 1991), and can help people evaluate alternatives better (Schwenk & Cosier, 1993). The presence of cognitive conflict appears to be instrumental for diligent and thorough information processing and for achieving high-quality decisions. For example, research on minority influence shows that even when a vocal deviate introduces incorrect solutions or the deviate's ideas are rejected, his or her actions still tend to result in more in-depth analysis and better quality decisions (e.g., Nemeth, 1992). Unfortunately, teams can often suffer from an inability to generate adequate levels of cognitive conflict.

There is ample research to suggest that teams do not necessarily engage in practices that maximize their performance, such as generating cognitive conflict (R. S. Baron, Kerr, & Miller, 1992; Eisenhardt & Zbaracki, 1992). Conflict is typically seen as a threat to perceptions of team harmony and solidarity and to the attainment of team goals (Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeous, 1997a; Levine & Thompson, 1998). Consequently, team members have a strong tendency to conform to what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be the majority preference (cf. Pech, 2001), and consequently members frequently avoid uncertainty and prematurely smooth over conflict (Brodwin & Bourgeois, 1984). Even when unique information or divergent ideas are contributed, these are typically not given sufficient consideration by others (Stasser & Stewart, 1992). For example, in their study, Eisenhardt et al. (1997) found that members of top management teams failed to sufficiently debate appropriate courses of action although such constructive conflict would have been desirable. This dynamic contributes to teams' ineffectiveness at identifying and using the specialized information possessed by individuals and at integrating members' unique insights into the decision (Gigone & Hastie, 1993; Wittenbaum & Stasser, 1996).

Team members avoid conflict in a variety of ways that include controlling thoughts (i.e., so that disagreeing opinions simply do not exist) and behaviors (i.e., so that disagreements are not publicly expressed), using decision rules and norms that reduce manifestations of overt conflict, and shifting public positions to mutually acceptable compromise positions (Levine & Thompson, 1998). This is particularly likely to occur in newly formed teams, where new team members face a socially ambiguous situation and look to others for guidance as to the appropriate way of thinking (Arrow & McGrath, 1993), but it can also happen in established teams, where team members come to value team cohesion over the quality of task performance (Janis, 1982). The end result of conflict avoidance is generally the poor use of a team, leading to a poor decision (Amason et al., 1995) or, worse, a decision fiasco (Janis, 1982). Consequently, the importance of stimulating cognitive conflict during the decision-making process must be stressed (Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeous, 1997b).

Affective Conflict

Whereas cognitive conflict is positively linked to the performance of decision-making teams, affective conflict has negative implications for performance. Affective conflict tends to negatively impact affective outcomes, such as commitment, acceptance, and satisfaction (Jehn, 1994, 1995; Wall & Callister, 1995). The negative effect of affective conflict on decision commitment is likely to be mediated by team members' willingness as well as perceptions of their ability to continue working together to implement the decision (Jehn, Chadwick, & Thatcher, 1997).

Affective conflict can foster cynicism, distrust, avoidance, and even hostility among team members, thereby eroding commitment to the decision as individuals disassociate themselves from the team's actions...

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