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Many constructive disagreements in successful research group

He has advised management groups across the University for three decades. Now, the psychologist and leadership consultant Thomas Sewerin has defended his PhD – on leadership in academia. Among other things, he has looked at how disagreements can pave the way for both failure and success. 
Man with glasses and a checked shirt
Thomas Sewerin has studied how a world-leading research environment handles conflict.  Photo: Adam Severin

In one of the four case studies in his thesis, Thomas Sewerin together with Eva Brodin, associate professor in educational science, studied a world-leading research environment with the hope to find a pattern and possibly a recipe for success. How is it possible for a research group to be at the international research front for more than half a century? 

"There were a great number of interviews and one constant was that the same people told me things like 'it is so much fun' and 'you have no idea what a snake pit it is, we argue all the time'", says Thomas Sewerin.

The equivocal responses lead Thomas Sewerin and Eva Brodin to decide not to look for the positive success factors which is the standard approach to research on successful environments. Instead, they turned the study on its head to investigate how the group handled the conflicts, which they did not lack – was there any pattern?

Yes, it turned out there was. Firstly, Thomas Sewerin emphasises that the conflicts are to be seen in light of the fact that the group came together with a clear common target and was very focused. The people were united and at times were almost like a family. As in all close relationships, inevitable friction occurs, some with destructive consequences, but even more that, in the long term, benefited the group as a whole, according to Thomas Sewerin. 

He calls the latter 'constructive disharmonies'. For example, these may include conflicts between generations.  

"It turned out that each new generation concealed their findings from the professor if they contradicted his or her theory, which they rather often did. Once the doctoral student was sufficiently confident and made the results public, conflict would flare up. However, after a while, they would become friends again", says Thomas Sewerin who adds that, in their own way, the supervisors paved the way for the situation given that right from the start they had given the doctoral students freedom to experiment as they wished. 

There was also friction between people of the same age. They fought for the same resources and guarded their territories in relation to external groups within the same research field. 

"One constructive way to handle this kind of disharmony was to join forces and apply for research funds together instead of competing against one another", says Thomas Sewerin.

This also applied to a third kind of conflict concerning the power of coming together against an external enemy – and which was managed by cooperating with each other instead. 

The three other studies in the thesis also look at special and complex situations within academia through a leadership lens.  

One study shows how managers who have to manage successful researchers who are fortunate in obtaining grants but who behave in a manner that poisons their immediate surroundings – unfortunately a personality type fed by the university environment that offers fame and glory and where boundaries are not always clear – progress through three phases in how they view their own leadership. The two other studies describe the differences in managing different kinds of organisations as well as how art can be used as a starting point for conversations about organisational changes. 

What then does Thomas Sewerin think has changed over the thirty years he has been working at Lund University?

“I believe people are more comfortable in their leadership roles, they no longer feel forced into these positions, and instead there is a genuine interest in taking on these kinds of duties in a different way to before."

He also mentions a greater maturity to lead processes of change and that these days there are more often functioning management environments around vice-chancellors, deans and even heads of departments. However, despite a number of improvements, there is still potential for development. 

“A lot would be gained if managements focused not only on the issues, but also at times made the management and power dimensions ‘talkable’ and accessible for conversation and joint reflection. This is the key message of my thesis and its results.” 




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The first edition of Lund University Magazine – LUM – was published 1968. Today, the magazine reaches all employees and almost as many outside the university. The magazine arrives six times a year.

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