In the case study of the Vigilance Project, presented by SHRM, two teams of a pharmaceutical company were merged into a new company just before launching a large project together. The teams, not used to working with each other, are from France and the United States, have different ways of working, and different ways of communicating. In working the project, the U.S. and France teams find themselves unable to communicate with each other effectively and unable to contribute to the project due to differing leadership styles and barriers to communication.
This case is about team conflict. Team conflict can be organizational or intra-group, and can be categorized into three types of conflict: task conflict, relationship conflict, and process conflict (Tiefenbacher, 2020). The case study showed all three. The largest conflicts appear to be between the United States and French core teams and subteams.
There was task conflict when the French team would not consider the U.S. team’s insight regarding the data entry fields (Dominick, n.d., p.6). Task conflict reared its head in subteams when people would storm out of meetings after given tasks with short notice and without enough information (Dominick, n.d., p.6).
There was relationship conflict: distrust and destructive barriers to communication between teams and team members. Distrust came when Didier cancelled the workshop and lied to avoid responsibility for it, blaming senior management for his decision (Dominick, n.d., p.6). Disrespect and distrust flourished when Didier ruled meetings autocratically and made it clear that they were not to bring up Perspective, nor other thoughts about the project (Dominick, n.d., p.5). Disrespect grew between the American communication manager, Frank, and the French project manager, Didier, when he reprimanded him for the use of a communication plan (Dominick, n.d., p.5). U.S. team members felt that they were not valued since Didier did not consider their perspectives (Dominick, n.d., p.6).
There was process conflict when Merline and Karine insisted on handling all communications through them, through the chain of command, which slowed things down and increased miscommunications (Dominick, n.d., p.5). There was process conflict when Didier frequently cancelled project teleconferences (Dominick, n.d., p.5).
In addition, the teams experienced conflict because of organizational structure (Tiefenbacher, 2020). The hierarchy and chain of command, distant cultures and cultural values, and communication styles added to the conflict. Didier, in a position of power, considered the France team to be the “core-core” team, which devalued the U.S. team and their efforts (Dominick, n.d., p.6). The strict meeting style from Didier and the strict communications through Merline and Karine (Dominick, n.d., p.5) created organizational barriers to communication and collaboration, creating hardships, frustration, and conflict.
Distance Affects Team Dynamics & Performance
Distance is negatively affecting team dynamics in this case. After the initial kick-off meeting in Paris, there was no in-person interaction between teams (Dominick, n.d., p.5). Distance made ad hoc meetings impossible, so teleconferences were necessary, which were also often cancelled by Didier (Dominick, n.d., p.5). Due to the communication issues between teams, the U.S. team was excited about a face-to-face workshop to get realigned, but this workshop was also cancelled by Didier (Dominick, n.d., p.6). Due to the distance and different cultural communication styles, the teams became more siloed and isolated from each other as the project wore on. This affected the attitudes of the people on the U.S. team, which became frustrated and felt alienated (Dominick, n.d., p.6). Distance prevented free and easy communication between teams and exacerbated the communication issues. Distance and cultural differences in communication caused deadline slippages, prevented the free flow of valuable feedback and information, which harmed overall performance.
Culturally, there is a higher power distance in France. Power distance is the acceptance of an unequal distribution of power across a company. For instance, members of a company in France will more readily accept authoritarian leadership from a manager above them, accepting the power distance as normal. In the U.S., members of a company usually do not accept that a manager has much more power than an employee and see each other more as peers and equals (Hofstede Insights, n.d.).
Appointing subteam sponsors in this case is a passive way of handling team conflict by acting as mediators and assisting in making decisions (Dominick, n.d., p.7). If teams had problems making decisions or if they were arguing internally about how an action step, mediators would have been extremely useful. In this case, the sponsors were not needed except to enable team members to challenge the decisions made by Didier. Subteam sponsors in this case will be ineffective at reducing the negativity between the teams and thus will be ineffective at increasing team communication and engagement, as that is not their mandate from Lance (Dominick, n.d., p.7).
If the team sponsors acted as facilitators that focused on tearing down barriers to communication between teams and team members, while working on fostering collaboration, they could be effective. In this case, though, team sponsors were to be minimally involved and used only as an escalation point for mediation.
In project like this case, where the teams are not already close and used to working together, there are challenges. Physical distance and inability to meet face-to-face poses additional difficulties. In this case, since the company PharMed International is the recent merger of two distinct teams from the United States and France, each with previous experience supporting database systems for drug effect tracking (Dominick, n.d., p.3). Combining the teams in an international project without planning for multicultural collaboration means disaster. Skills needed for this kind of endeavor are leadership skills, communication skills, cultural diversity understanding, and project management skills.
Specifically, this project calls for a participative leader who approaches leadership in a democratic way. With participative leadership skills, the leader includes followers in decision making, opens clear and honest lines of communication throughout the team, and understands followers’ morale. A participative leader is approachable, curious, open-minded, and most of all: collaborative (Miller, n.d.). Any teams staffed for new projects need to be skilled collaborators. All managers and leaders should be skilled in participative leadership.
Conflict Negotiation Skills
In this case, the skills that are most appropriate for conflict negotiation which were missing in the team are illustrated by Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. First, needed is the ability to actively listen to the issues individually and consider the interests and values separately. Second, the ability to build relationships by engaging people and building rapport. Thirdly, the ability to find common values between teams to build the negotiation on. Fourth, the strength of character to confront differences directly and work them out (PON Staff, 2020).
Key to the projects team conflicts are the authoritarian leadership of the France team and its leader, Didier, who created barriers to communication and crushed the enthusiasm and collaboration of the U.S. team. If Didier had taken a participative/democratic leadership approach that encouraged open-mindedness, honesty, and collaboration in a psychologically safe environment, the teams would have been encouraged to give feedback, contribute, and work together.
Dominick, P. G. (n.d.). The Vigilance project – Case Overview. Society for Human Resource Management. https://www.shrm.org/certification/educators/Documents/The%20Vigilance%20Project_Student_Workbook_Final.pdf
Hofstede Insights. (n.d.). Country Comparison. https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/france,the-usa/
Miller, K. (n.d.). 10 Characteristics of the Participative Leadership Style. https://futureofworking.com/10-characteristics-of-the-participative-leadership-style/
PON Staff. (2020, June 16). Four Conflict Negotiation Strategies for Resolving Value-Based Disputes. https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/dispute-resolution/four-negotiation-strategies-for-resolving-values-based-disputes/
Tiefenbacher, W. (2020, January 19). Team conflict: understanding types of conflict and how to manage them sustainably. https://www.ckju.net/en/dossier/team-conflict-understanding-types-conflict-and-how-manage-them-sustainably