Conflict in teams: what are we all so afraid of?

Posted 03 May 2011 by

Conflict between team members who rely on each other to get their work done usually feels scary and dangerous. And leading a team that is constantly in conflict is stressful and exhausting. Surely teams would be more productive if harmony broke out and everyone just got along?

Well, no.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that a team almost certainly won’t be more productive or more effective if conflict is eliminated.

The key to understanding why this is so, is to distinguish between the different forms of conflict. Of course conflict can be negative when it is left to escalate to the point where people feel personally undermined, and when a political climate of distrust and suspicion develops. Teams should be vigilant against this type of conflict.

However, conflict that is borne of a passionate desire to achieve the team’s objectives should be embraced and positively encouraged. When team members are committed to what needs to be done, AND feel they can be unguarded in how they express their views, and may openly challenge each other, then the team as whole is likely to get the benefit of every team member’s individual perspective, and make higher quality decisions.

Research shows that in heterogeneous teams, where team members contain people of a variety of personality types, more time will be expended in debate - but the team is more likely to produce better results.

In a team where most people are of a similar personality type, however, people are more likely to see things from a similar perspective; thus decisions are made quickly but they may be flawed, because the team has overlooked important issues.

In my experience it is far more common for teams not to have enough conflict – of the passionate, challenging kind. Even in teams that contain people with diverse personality styles and perspectives, the pervasive curse of superficial pleasantness, “pseudo-harmony”, often reigns, and the team can prove lifeless (and just a bit dull). All too often team members are afraid of conflict, because they haven’t developed trusting relationships with each other.

When we trust each other, we are comfortable telling each other who we really are, not just the super-being we think we ought to be at work. We are likely to admit to our mistakes as well as share what really drives us to get up in the morning. When team members feel comfortable in owning up to their weaknesses as well as their strengths, they are more likely to ask for and accept help, to be open to an opposing views, and not to reject others’ perspectives just because they are different. As a bonus, this is likely to mean a reduction of the political manoeuvring that creates unproductive conflicts which can prove so distracting and counterproductive.

More than anything else, team facilitators should help teams build trust and engage in healthy conflict. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs are ideal to support the development of such trust, creating as they do a common vocabulary for describing differences, and helping to create a safe environment for the team to have conversations about individual strengths and weaknesses. Additionally when it comes to helping teams manage conflict, I am seeing more and more facilitators turn to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). This tool identifies different styles of dealing with conflict, and the types of issues that each style is suited to.

I believe there is a great opportunity to challenge a team to be more thoughtful, flexible and sophisticated in how it tackles conflict. Teams can benefit from actively practicing different ways of resolving differences: when it is worth spending hours in passionate debate, when it is better to fight one’s corner and win, when a compromise should be welcomed, or when it makes sense to walk away and not engage at all.

Conflict without trust is uncomfortable, scary, dangerous, stressful, exhausting and unproductive. However, conflict built on a firm foundation of trust between team members - and managed consciously - can provide the spark that releases the team’s greatness.

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