Academic journal article Military Review

Decision Conflict in Army Leaders

Academic journal article Military Review

Decision Conflict in Army Leaders

Article excerpt

Conflict is an enduring feature of decision-making. Yet, leaders are compelled to make decisions, which means they cannot escape dealing with various planes of decision conflict. Moreover, the more senior a leader, the more difficult decisions he or she must make. However, because difficult decisions are not limited to only the most senior leaders of a given organization, leaders who have ascended to higher levels of decision-making must constantly assess the quality of decision-making among less-senior leaders over whom they have responsibility.

Consequently, studying and improving leadership is an extremely complex and important topic for the Army. Leaders naturally want to improve decision-making as it plays a significant role in professional development, successful mission accomplishment, and promotion. For example, Gen. Robert B. Brown, U.S. Army Pacific commanding general, emphasizes the importance of decision-making in order to trust and empower subordinates to be agile and adaptive leaders.1 Agility and adaptability can be negatively impacted when one does not effectively deal with the stress of decision conflict. Gen. Stephen Townsend, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command commanding general, states that, as a result of these impacts, young leaders are losing their confidence when faced with making hard decisions.2

This article provides a deeper understanding of the types of conflict within a leader's decision-making landscape. By identifying the types and contexts in which they appear, leaders may be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and make improvements. The article also recommends a framework between three types of decision conflicts and three types of decision contexts, which leaders can use to assess themselves.

Motivation for Research

Decision-making conflict has been extensively studied in the national security domain. Conflict is defined as a process where one person believes their interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another person.3 Among civilian national security policy makers, knowledge-based conflict (i.e., cognitive) between what an individual believes and what new information reveals can often cause an individual to reject or distort new information.4 This is a potential danger to decision-making.

However, a recent study of twenty-one Army three- and four-star combat arms general officers, who commanded major formations during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, indicated the opposite.5 When presented with conflicting information, they did not reject or distort new information. Instead, their decision-making process improved because the conflicts triggered self-learning and critical-thinking abilities needed to resolve the problems. Since the study produced such unexpected results, it suggested the need for a follow-on study on how decision conflict is exhibited in less-senior Army officers. Data for this follow-on study was collected in late 2016 and early 2017, while the author was the Defense Intelligence Agency representative to the U.S. Army War College, and is provided in this article.


The follow-on study collected 193 decisions from eighty Army officers, consisting of sixty-three colonels and seventeen lieutenant colonels, of which sixty-nine were active duty, six were National Guard, and five were Army Reserve officers. The study focused on how officers experienced decisions and did not systematically focus on decision-making processes, the outcomes of decisions, or mitigation strategies in efforts to overcome conflict.

Decision Contexts and Decision Conflicts

The results indicate that conflict was widespread in leader decision-making, not only on a knowledge-based (cognitive) level but also emotionally. Just as cognitive conflict within a leader can negatively affect one's decision-making, so too can emotionally based conflict.6 The greater the intensity in emotional conflict, the greater the likelihood that deliberative decision-making will be negatively impacted. …

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