The Impact of Conflict-Generating Techniques on Student Reactions and Decision Quality

Article excerpt

This study examined the effectiveness of conflict-generating decision-making techniques in the college classroom. Utilizing constructive conflict in classroom exercises may affect decision-making quality and student reactions. This study of undergraduate and graduate business students found significant difference in both the quality of the decisions and in student reactions to the techniques. The findings and discussion indicate the potential for appropriate use of structured decision-making techniques in the classroom.

Researchers have shown that group writing and group projects are important skills for today's workforce (Burnett, 1990); Dorazio, 1985; Lunsford & Ede, 1986; Porter, 1990). In addition, group projects are an important part of the classroom as educators place more emphasis on the education process rather than on test results (Rieber, 1992).

Group decision making is typically taught in a number of business-related courses ranging from organizational behavior and business communication to strategic management. Textbooks usually present some variant of consensus decision-making. A consensus approach is usually offered as the model for effective evaluation and is considered appropriate where group acceptance of the decision is important. However, decision-making by consensus can take large amounts of time or can be subverted into a process more akin to groupthink. Without structure, consensus may be difficult to reach or may produce a mediocre product. Other, more structured, evaluation approaches that use conflict as a positive force have been suggested. These structured group decision-making techniques can be applied to group writing assignments in which group members must generate and evaluate ideas.

This research study investigated the following questions: 1. What are the effects of conflict-generating techniques

on decision quality in classroom group

activities? 2. What are the effects of conflict-generating techniques

on student reactions to classroom group

activities?

Conflict-Generating Group Techniques

This study focused on three conflict-oriented approaches to structured group decision making: devil's advocacy (DA), dialectical inquiry (DI), and reverse brainstorming (RB).

Devil's advocacy builds conflict into the decision-making process. The role of the devil's advocate is to introduce dissent to avoid reaching premature and potentially erroneous consensus. The devil's advocate challenges assumptions and broadens the range of alternatives considered. Janis and Mann (1977) suggested that the group leader assign one or more group members the role of devil's advocate when a great deal of agreement exists. This person's role is to present convincing counterarguments and to challenge the majority position. A type of confrontation session between an advocate of the original proposal and the devil's advocate is held with key organizational decision makers as observers. Based on this confrontation session, the organizational decision makers can then accept the proposal, modify it, or develop a completely new proposal based on a more complete understanding of the original proposal's shortcomings.

The DA technique well suits business communication assignments that require analysis, such as feasibility reports, comparison reports, and other reports requiring recommendations. A group of four students can be subdivided into two pairs. Subgroup 1 creates a rough draft of the document and develops assumptions and recommendations based on assumptions and facts presented in the case. Subgroup 2 is assigned the role of devil's advocate and subjects Subgroup 1's recommendations and assumptions to a formal evaluation. Subgroup 1 then reworks the document based on the valid criticisms of the devil's advocate subgroup. Putting students into subgroups minimizes the stress that an isolated student might have as devil's advocate. …