Conflicts in top management teams: transitions, triggers and actions
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date01/08/2021
Conflicts are inevitable in work teams. In diversity research, early studies have analysed the distribution of personal attributes among interdependent members of a working unit and investigated the different types of conflicts that are triggered by individual differences within the organisation. This body of research investigates the impact of the different dimensions of personal attributes on team behaviour (i.e., conflicts and cooperation) and explores how conflicts may have an impact on the group’s performance. Since the impact of such conflicts on team performance has not yet been proven, some studies have tried to figure out the conflict-performance relationship by analysing the mediator impacts; for example, group cohesion and group behavioural integration. Thus, the research focus has changed from analysing individual dynamics (i.e., personal characteristics) to analysing group dynamics (i.e., the relationships and interactions among the diversified members). The analysis of different levels, including the individual, group, organisation, industry and environment dimensions, makes conflict management research more integrated and dynamic in comparison with studies that examine the impacts of the behaviour of isolated individuals within a working team. The recent focus on group behaviour and the composition of group members has led to the concepts of subgroups and faultlines in conflict management research. Subgroups or faultlines are regarded as a central component of work teams; however, subgroups or faultline issues have remained largely unexamined by scholars. Previous studies have presented a typology of subgroups and examined the antecedents and consequences of subgroups. Faultlines are regarded as the antecedents of subgroups in the literature. They are hypothetical dividing lines that split a group into two or more subgroups based on the alignment of one or more individual’s attributes and they have been found to affect teams’ processes, teams’ performance and teams’ affective outcomes. Most faultline studies are interested in understanding the composition of faultlines and they focus on the demographic attributes of team members. Recent studies have shown an increasing interest in analysing the complex mix of attributes that generate faultlines. Other studies have tried to analyse the context of teams and organisations by exploring the group’s characteristics (i.e., group size and the number of subgroups), group-level moderators (i.e., openness to experience and the salience of subgroup differences) and organisational and national culture in order to examine the faultline-performance relationship. As is the case in many new research areas, the findings of faultlines studies are not consistent, and many empirical studies have neglected several aspects of faultlines that are critical to understanding the link between faultlines and group performance; for example, faultline activation and evolution. There is an insufficient understanding of the micro aspects of subgroup formation by which to explain ‘how’ individuals align themselves to form rivals in a team, and the reason ‘why’ individuals try to formulate faultlines is still underdeveloped. This area of interest is called faultline triggers. Only a few studies have provided limited categories of triggers and more research is needed. The majority of the work on faultlines has investigated how demographic faultlines affect group processes and outcomes. However, little research has investigated the faultlines’ interactions via a process perspective. In other words, the question about ‘how’ teams interact regarding these differences within the team when faultlines emerge or are present also requires further study. This study, therefore, draws on diversity research and conflict management studies, which have introduced a theoretical framework that integrates teams’ early and late conflict states, faultline activation, the conflict transition process and the conflict management process. By targeting the behaviours and interactions of Top Management Teams (TMT), this study employs both upper echelon theory and faultline theory to understand the faultline transition process. Firstly, this study reviews the recent research that investigates the interplay of team conflict types. This study advances the Team Conflict Dynamics Model to examine conflict types within a dynamic and changing viewpoint. This model considers dynamics by examining conflict transformations in Top Management Teams, the reciprocal effects of conflict management processes and the negative impacts on the emerging faultlines. Using current studies in the conflict management field, this study explores whether the two types of conflict states (i.e., task conflicts and relationship conflicts) can be transformed to faultlines. This study then explores TMT/organisational characteristics and events that will activate faultlines. Previous research incorporates contextual features involving team design and contextual factors. Together with transformed task conflicts and relationship conflicts in the transition process, the dimensions motivating the emergence of faultlines form a typology of faultline triggers. Using a process-state perspective, this study then proposes the conflict management procedure as a dynamic transition and action process. The measures dealing with task conflicts and relationship conflicts within Top Management Teams are examined as the pre-emptive procedures that prevent faultlines from emerging. This study explores how senior managers deal with subgroups’ conflicts, which are referred to as reactive procedures, after faultlines are activated within TMTs. CEOs’ leadership, in terms of pre-emptive procedures and reactive procedures, will be explored separately. Thus, this process-based study explores the interaction between team members in order to prevent and react to faultlines. The findings categorise three different types of faultlines based on interests, relationships and seniority. They confirm that task conflicts and relationship conflicts can be transformed into faultlines in a specific context. In addition, these two conflicts will result in different types of faultlines, as explored in this study. Other triggers besides existing conflicts may also activate faultlines in Top Management Teams. The results suggest that faultline triggers, including specific legitimising events (i.e., newcomers and successive CEOs), have a significant impact on TMTs’ team morale and cohesion. The emerging findings emphasise the issue of nepotism; namely, when ties to relatives and friends are present in TMTs. By dividing nepotism into successor nepotism, which is related to new CEOs; schism nepotism, which is related to member exit; and proximity nepotism, which is related to relationship distance, the findings argue that tensions between subgroups significantly affect team cohesion and activate faultlines. This study also provides evidence that conflict management approaches are affected by the type of conflicts that existed in the early and late life cycle stages. Thus, this study provides an overview of how top management teams manage early levels of conflict types and how these approaches affect the later levels of conflict type, which are referred to as faultline conflicts. After examining the CEO-TMT interface, it is found that TMT members are mainly engaged in pre-emptive procedures that use cooperative conflict management approaches, whereas in reactive procedures, CEOs’ leadership approaches are critical in determining whether activated faultlines are exacerbated or lessened. The findings highlight the importance of early intervention and acknowledging the different effects of CEOs’ personal leadership approaches and TMT approaches in pre-emptive procedures and reactive procedures. The findings suggest that conflict types and conflict management approaches should be modelled together in order to understand team conflicts better. This study advances the Team Conflict Dynamics Model. It does this by examining conflict transformations in TMTs, the reciprocal effects of conflict management processes and the negative impact of events on emerging faultlines. This study’s new typology of faultline triggers helps scholars to understand whether there are differences among teams with faultlines that are dormant, faultlines that are active or dormant faultlines that have been triggered to become active. This study recognises and pinpoints the detrimental effects of the involvement of relatives and friends in TMTs and introduces the idea that nepotism can apply in non-family owned organisations. This process-based study acknowledges the different impacts of TMTs’ managerial practices and CEOs’ leadership practices, according to the pre-emptive and reactive stages of conflict management that are distinguished throughout the study.