Conflicting interests within a group can improve collective decisions, according to a joint-study by the London School of Economics and Social Policy (LSE), UK and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin.
The study shows that instead of confusing the group or slowing down decision-making, conflict within a group can make for better group decisions. This is a positive for those who work in an office where not everyone sees eye to eye on a project. The squabbling and disagreements might make for a better end result.
The effectiveness of a squabbling group however is dependent on other factors. The individuals in conflict must share the same overall aim of the group for the squabbling to be effective conflict rather than meaningless argument.
Examples of common group goals improved by small-scale conflict include:
- searching for food
- finding a place to rest or shelter
- seeking a safe place to sleep
- avoiding becoming prey
If we transfer this to the word of work, we can see common group goals as:
- looking for new business
- keeping a work equilibrium
- avoiding redundancy
- keeping up with competition
The research team developed a decision-making model which showed that when individuals in a group have slightly different small-scale goals, they are less likely to make the same mistake as another group would predicted by chance. So, arguing meerkats made less mistakes than they would have, by chance.
Small-scale contrasting goals are often seen in groups when animals try to optimize a group decision for personal gain. If the personal gain is not completely opposed to the group goal, the conflict that arises can be a positive. Conflict therefore serves to improve the groups achievement of its aim, rather than hamper it.
Transferring this to the world of work, small scale contrasting goals seen in a business group can work for the greater good of everyone. For example, Ted wants the new office to be near a station for his personal gain of commutting easily to work. In pursuing this, the group gain results in that the new office being located within easy access of transport links - a benefit for business clients, suppliers and the competitiveness of the business, as well as Ted getting home on time.
Dr Christian List, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the LSE, comments on the findings:
The example given to demonstrate the positive nature of conflict can be seen in the meerkat group choice of land. In two given patches, one suitable for food and the other unsuitable, a group with contrasting personal goals is much more likely to choose the patch that is suitable for food than the group with goals that are completely compatible. Effectively, all members of the group benefit from diversity and the consequential conflict, as long as the conflict remains relatively small-scale.
Despite disagreements, decisions are still made by the group and the group continues. It is always in the interests of a group to avoid permanently splitting, or dividing.
Studies of animal group behavior or ‘swarm intelligence’ have tended to not concentrate on the consequence of conflict within a group. This research is the first to study the nature of group conflict, and its positive function.
Examples of conflicting goals within the group include:
- vulnerable animals preferring a safer migration route
- larger animals opting for a shorter migration one
- smaller animals choosing a food patch with higher forage quality
- larger animals favouring a patch with a higher quantity of food
The disagreement that arises by negotiating contrasting desired outcomes improves the quality of group decision making as a whole. The study showed that without an element of conflict, decisions were not just not as effective but were ‘surprisingly poor.’
The findings of the study into group behavior, when applied to humans, demonstrate that involving the interests of all members of a group in decision-making – from the most dominant to the most vulnerable, is essential for the group success and avoiding the pitfalls of error.
Co-author Dr Larissa Conradt comments:
Equality and diversity, therefore, is officially in everyone’s interests. Remember, small scale arguments improve the outcomes for a group, but huge disputes can create a destructive disharmony. So, make sure that when your office is next involved in a squabble, it's one big enough to rule out the chances of mistakes made by those with no opposition, but not so big that you never speak to each other again!
LSE Press Release: Squabbling meerkats make better decisions
The American Naturalist: Swarm Intelligence: When Uncertainty Meets Conflict