Ethics speaker Kristin Behfar: Effective team leadership is ethical leadership

Kristin Behfar speaking
Kristin Behfar, PhD ’03, professor of strategic leadership and ethics at the United States Army War College, delivering the 2019 Day Family Ethics Lecture at Sage Hall

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, PhD ’03, professor of strategic leadership and ethics at the United States Army War College, also sees effectively leading a high-performing team as a manager’s ethical responsibility.

“It’s not a right or a wrong, but it’s a leader’s responsibility to make sure a team is effective,” explained Behfar in her talk, Ethics in Interpersonal Conflict, presented to students, staff and faculty at Sage Hall as the 2019 Day Family Ethics Lecture, 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 the team he or she leads. Her research gets to the heart of how to accomplish this when there is conflict.

In her presentation, Behfar detailed 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. “We need to get to better solutions.”

Kristin Behfar pointing to her Powerpoint presentation

High directness, low intensity = debate vs. argue

Behfar’s first study 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 individuals needs

A second study examined the characteristics of high- and low-performing teams, as well as team member satisfaction, with regards to conflict resolution. 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.”

She further explained that there tends to be a forced equity in these groups, where rules are substituted for trust. “Voting is common on these teams, and that creates a majority and minority,” Behfar said. “[They] have structure, but … no longer trust each other.”

Behfar also talked about the value of embracing disagreement. The teams that focused on harmony—making sure everyone’s ideas were included, with individual feelings and needs addressed—exhibited low performance. “These people were feeling good, but doing bad,” Behfar explained. “In place of analysis and debate, they would include everyone’s ideas. They focused on equality, but equity is a better principle for dividing resources on a team.”

Kristin Behfar at the front of a classroom

The benefits of a challenger-listener response to venting

The third area of her research 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, or commiserating—none of these dissipates the venter’s anger. Instead, providing new insights toward solving the problem enables the venter to reevaluate and get back to work in a productive way—and in fact, this was the only strategy that did.

“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 around conflict and take the high road, even if it is more difficult. “It’s the way we fight,” she explained, “that matters more than what we fight about.”

—Written by Eleanor Frankel