Conflict is neither inherently good nor bad. Poorly handled conflict can kill morale and degrade team performance. Well-handled conflict can lead to innovation and boost performance.
What can team leaders do to manage conflict effectively? Learn what the research says about team conflict and find a few tips for promoting constructive conflict in your teams.
How does conflict affect team performance?
A team conflict begins when one or more team members perceive that their interests or point of view are being opposed by another team member. All teams experience conflict but not all conflicts are the same. Researchers have distinguished between task conflict (about work content and outcomes), interpersonal conflict (about personal issues), and process conflict (about work logistics, for example who gets assigned certain tasks). Interestingly, in higher performing teams a greater proportion of their conflicts tend to be task related than in lower performing teams.
These three types of conflict affect team performance differently. Frank de Wit (Leiden University), Lindred Greer (University of Amsterdam) and Karen Jehn (University of Melbourne) conducted a meta-analysis of team conflict research. Their analyses, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, combined the results from 116 prior studies and were based on data from over 8800 teams. They found that when teams experienced high levels of interpersonal or process conflict, team performance was consistently lower. But the results for task conflict were more complex. Task conflict does not necessarily degrade team performance and at times can be beneficial.
So what influences whether task conflict is constructive?
Feeling safe matters.
Psychological safety is a shared belief among team members that it is okay to take some interpersonal risks; that they can speak up without being punished, ostracized, or embarrassed. Bret Bradley from the University of Oklahoma and several of his colleagues conducted a study of 117 project teams and found that psychological safety is a major determinant of how task conflict affects team performance. Their results are quite clear. When psychological safety is high, task conflict generally boosts performance. If people feel safe speaking up, the team can disagree about work issues openly and make useful adjustments. If voicing a different opinion leads to a backlash, not only do people feel worse, the team's performance suffers.
The composition of the team matters.
Bradley and his team of researchers also examined how team personality influences whether task conflict will be beneficial. They found that teams made up of individuals who scored higher on "openness to experience" or on "emotional stability" (two of psychology's Big Five personality factors) benefitted from task conflict, while teams that scored low on those factors were adversely affected by task conflict. In fact, the pattern of results from this study imply that teams with high openness and emotional stability might need "enough" task conflict to attain high levels of performance. Some teams are composed of people who are inherently more ready to deal with task conflict constructively.
The way conflict is handled matters.
The way a team interacts when disagreements emerge also determines whether task conflict ends up being constructive or destructive. Leslie DeChurch, Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, and Dan Doty conducted a meta-analysis of 45 prior studies with over 3000 teams. They found that the way a team handles conflict is more important than what the conflict is about. Teams that deal with conflict by competing or trying to avoid the conflict are likely to suffer. In contrast, teams that use a collaborative or open-minded approach to conflict are more likely to improve as a result of the conflict. Uncovering concerns, openly discussing issues, challenging the feasibility of solutions, and integrating ideas leads to better outcomes.
I'd suggest that psychological safety makes it easier for a team to adopt an open style of dealing with conflict. In turn, dealing with conflict openly and constructively contributes to psychological safety, creating a reinforcing or "virtuous" cycle.
10 Tips for Team Leaders
Every high-performing team I've worked with has experienced conflict. And for that matter, I've never seen a dysfunctional team that was conflict free either. So here are ten tips for anyone who is a team leader:
1. Recognize that conflict is normal. It is not feasible or healthy to avoid conflict. Humans will disagree with one another. They will have different points of view about tasks, about how tasks should be assigned, and about people. Moreover, they simply like some people more than others. Conflict is going to happen. It is not a sign of failure, and suppressing it is not a viable option. It hasn't gone away, you just aren't seeing it, and your team's effectiveness is probably suffering.
2. Take the time to address interpersonal disagreements between team members. The research shows that interpersonal conflicts can hurt a team's performance. Unchecked, they can also erode psychological safety, in turn making it difficult to have constructive disagreements about work-related issues. I coached a team leader who told me that an on-going conflict between two of his team members "was their problem." I advised him that "their" problem affects the team, and so, although I knew he'd rather not deal with it, it was also his problem.
3. Some conflicts are best handled in private. When two team members have an interpersonal conflict, it should typically be handled in private. If it surfaces in a team setting, find a time to talk with each person individually and then together, but not in front of the entire team. In contrast, when psychological safety is high, a team discussion about a task-related conflict can be quite useful.
4. Surface and discuss concerns. Conflicts sometimes emerge because small concerns go unchecked. Talk with your team to surface irritants before they become bigger problems. We are currently conducting research with NASA on crews that work and live together in close quarters for days at a time (to simulate future space missions). We find that enabling teams to uncover and discuss potential irritants (for them it's about topics like privacy, sleep, meals) before they become a source of conflict is helping them avert problems later in the mission. Establish a pattern of identifying and discussing concerns openly and "conflict" will boost performance.
5. Make "deposits" to create a sense of psychological safety. As a team leader you greatly influence the degree to which your team feels safe. Look for opportunities to set the right tone. How? When a team members offers a dissenting point of view, thank him for speaking up (to encourage others to speak up). Be constructive when you disagree with a team member (to model how to disagree effectively). Admit your own concerns or mistakes (so team members become comfortable voicing theirs). In contrast, want to know the easiest way to kill psychological safety? Punish someone for voicing a dissenting opinion.
6. Frame disagreements so they are about the work and not about the person. Disagreements that seem "person-related" are perceived as interpersonal conflict. You can take an opposing view about a work idea without sounding like you are opposing the person offering the idea.
7. Recognize that "process conflict" has a cost. The research showed that process conflict (e.g., disagreeing about how work is assigned) is negatively related to performance. But at times you may need to assign or schedule work that is not universally popular. That's part of your job but don't assume that it will simply be seen as a "business decision." The research hints that this can be seen as personal, so take the time to explain your rationale to a team member who might feel slighted and ensure that they at least feel they have been heard.
8. Choose your team wisely. When you have the chance, select people for your team who are open to experience and emotionally stable. That alone will improve the chances that differing points of view about work will boost rather than hurt your team's performance.
9. Know your team. Some people are more comfortable with conflict than others. And there are cultural differences as well. Countries have differing norms about the appropriateness of speaking up. And even within a country there can be differences. In the US, I've gone from a meeting in the Midwest where people are very nice and tend to be conflict averse to New York where people tend to readily vocalize disagreements, although not always constructively! Be aware of your team's preferences, and encourage them to speak up or coach them to be more constructive, as needed.
10. Know yourself. How do you feel about conflict? I generally enjoy task conflict – a debate about a work issue makes me very happy. As a leader, I like to think I promote "constructive friction" but I suspect not everyone sees it that way! Knowing your tendencies can enable you to tone it down or amp it up accordingly.