Team Conflict: The Good, Bad and the Ugly
Teamwork is increasingly desired and a norm for organizations. But all too often there is conflict among team members. Some say any conflicts in teams are bad. Others might contend conflict can be a productive source for creative tension used to drive innovation.
So, who is right?
Professors Carsten K. W. De Dreu, and Laurie R. Weingart’s research, “Task Versus Relationship Conflict, Team Performance, and Team Member Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis” (Journal of Applied Psychology 2003, Vol. 88, No. 4, 741–749) sheds light into research around the pros and cons of team conflict. So just what is meta-analysis? Wikipedia defines it in layman’s terms as a “statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies.” A meta-analysis is often used when there are multiple scientific studies addressing the same question, with each individual study reporting measurements that are “expected to have some degree of error.”
The goal of the professor’s paper? To study the litany of various research reports on how conflict in teams impacts team performance to sort out who is right and who is wrong.
De Dreu and Weingart explain the various research studies generally lump team conflict into two types: task conflict and relationship conflict. Examples of relationship conflict are conflicts about personal taste, political preferences, values and interpersonal style. Examples of task conflict include the distribution of resources, procedures and policies, and judgments and interpretation of facts.
In recent years there has been a growing tendency in the academic studies and literature to assume that relationship conflict can hurt team a team’s performance while task conflict can, under certain circumstances, be beneficial to team effectiveness.
De Dreu’s and Weingart’s analysis across all of the research showed some studies reported strong positive correlations between task conflict and team performance, while others have found a negative correlation. However, while some studies had conflicting results, De Dreu and Weingart found the “large majority” of studies found a negative relationship between both task and relationship conflict and performance.
So, does this mean all conflict should be avoided at all cost? The duo say their study “should not be taken as conclusive evidence that conflict does not have a functional side to it or that conflict can never be positive.” They continue:
“Conflict may have positive consequences under very specific circumstances, and we need to detect those circumstances in new research. While waiting for these studies, however, it seems safe to stop assuming that, whereas relationship conflict is detrimental to team performance, task conflict improves team performance. Clearly, it does not.”
Some of you might be saying, “Yeah – I get conflict is bad. But really should we always avoid conflict?” No one wants a room full of grinning yes-people that can stifle ideas or prevent bad things from happening. Remember, it was a yes-people attitude that led to the cabin fire disaster early in NASA’s Apollo program that killed four astronauts in 1967.
The point is not that you should disagree or keep closed-lipped, but rather how you work through issues in a healthy way. For those that follow our research and work at the University of Tennessee on the Vested sourcing business model, you will know I am a fan of purposely creating a positive team dynamic between a strategic buyer-supplier through the use of a formal relational contract that embeds social norms as guiding principles into the parties’ contract. This – coupled with formal governance structures on how to work through issues – can help buyer-supplier teams get past conflict in a healthy way. I outline this approach in the September-October issue of Harvard Business Review, “A New Approach to Contracts.”
While a well-structured relational contract can work wonders, I would be burying my head in the sand if I said simply creating a formal relational contract is a panacea. But the guiding principles and governance structures can prevent much of the conflict that would normally cause tension in a team.
I will go on record saying that in some cases however, you must have the courage to proactively drive conflict. Yes – that is right. I said it. Sometimes you must have a hard stance and if that means conflict – it means conflict. But this should only be done when individuals are not following the guiding principles and are causing tension and disruption within the broader team. This is why I often say “change the people or change the people.” If you have a toxic team member – that person should go.
Back to De Dreu and Weingart. Kudos to them for sorting through all of the research on this topic with their meta-analysis. One thing is for sure: It seems indisputable that conflict within teams and relationships can negatively affect performance. For those interested in learning how to create formal relational contracts I encourage you to register for the University of Tennessee’s Collaborative Contracting course.