Ethics speaker: Effective team leadership is an ethical duty

Insider trading. Tax evasion. Privacy issues in technology. When people think about ethics in business, those are the topics that most readily come to mind.

Kristin Behfar, Ph.D. ’03, speaks at the Day Family Ethics Lecture, co-sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Cornell Law School, March 26 in Sage Hall.

But Kristin Behfar, Ph.D. ’03, professor of strategic leadership and ethics at the United States Army War College, says managers have an ethical responsibility to effectively lead a high-performing team.

“It’s not a right or a wrong, but it’s a leader’s responsibility to make sure a team is effective,” Behfar said in her talk, “Ethics in Interpersonal Conflict,” presented to students, staff and faculty March 26 at Sage Hall as the 2019 Day Family Ethics Lecture.

The event was co-sponsored by the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Cornell Law School.

Behfar believes it is a manager’s ethical obligation to ensure the well-being and high performance of their team. Her research gets to the heart of how to accomplish this when there is conflict. She outlined three studies she has conducted that uncover the most effective ways to address problems in team situations.

The biggest surprise? Following our intuition often leads us down the wrong path. “The way we behave sometimes hides the root cause of the problem,” she said.

Her three studies:

High directness, low intensity = debate vs. argue: For this, Behfar delved into how people argue during disagreements, charting “conflict expression” on two dimensions: how intense we are; and how direct we are. Members on the most effective teams, she found, were clear in their communications and not entrenched in their positions; they were willing to listen and adjust. But she also saw benefits when people were not direct, disguising their intentions and expressions, since it offered a cooling-off period.

The key is for managers to address conflict strategically. “I ask people, ‘What is the culture of your company when it comes to expressing conflict?’” Behfar said. By understanding the positive and negative consequences of the ways people argue, managers can help groups move from frustration to productive debate.

High-performing teams put group goals above individual needs: Her second study on conflict resolution examined the characteristics of high- and low-performing teams, as well as team member satisfaction. The ideal team – characterized by high performance and high satisfaction – puts group goals above individual needs and embraces equity in resolving disagreements. In addition, members focus on content instead of style of delivery when someone is speaking; that way, they are able to ignore any aggression in the way an idea is presented and tune into what the person says and means.

Behfar cautioned against allowing a high-performance, low-satisfaction team to continue that behavioral path. “These are talented but unhappy people,” she said. “In terms of the ethical implications of that, you won’t be able to keep talented people. They’ll be looking for other jobs.”

The benefits of a “challenger-listener” response to venting: The third study explored venting in the workplace. Behfar found that people typically vent three to four times a day, but the way listeners respond is rarely helpful. Supporting the venter’s feelings, offering encouragement, commiserating – none of these dissipates the venter’s anger. Instead, providing new insights toward solving the problem enables the venter to re-evaluate and get back to work in a productive way. This was the only strategy that worked.

“People want to vent to someone who is trustworthy,” said Behfar, “but what is more helpful is someone who is a challenger-listener, who challenges the venter to reappraise and get to the root of the problem.”

Behfar encouraged those in the audience to re-examine their styles of leadership regarding conflict and take the high road, even if it is more difficult. “It’s the way we fight,” she said, “that matters more than what we fight about.”

Eleanor Frankel is a freelance writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

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