A study from the University of South Wales, quoted in Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, revealed the startling impact that a ‘bad apple’ can have on a group. In a team activity, someone was planted, unknown to the rest of the group, with the mission of disrupting the team. The plant would undermine people’s ideas, look disinterested, or disrupt the work process. Compared with other groups who did not have this mole, the bad apple groups performed 30-40% less effectively. Even the teams that looked the best on paper were disrupted by this behaviour.
While ‘bad apples’ are hopefully rare, being perceived as a trouble maker is something most of us fear. We worry that if we challenge others or contradict an idea, that we will be seen as someone who finds problems instead of solutions; we worry that we will be associated with those who are like the bad apple described above. In my post on psychological safety, we discovered that one of the key pillars of a safe team is being able to voice views without fear of reprimand – it is essential for team members to feel safe to contribute, even if it conflicts with the views of others. And that is fundamentally different to being a bad apple who undermines the team and its goals.
This post explores what team conflict is, how it can be managed, and finishes with top tips for leaders to best utilise team conflict. And, if you associate the word conflict with something antagonistic, try to reframe that connotation; team conflict can range from mild disagreements of views about a task, to more personal disputes, with the latter being less frequent.
Put simply, team conflict is necessary, healthy, and your team’s secret weapon to improve processes, culture, and, in turn, results.
What is team conflict?
Team conflict is often categorised as either being task-based or relationship-based. Task-based conflict might involve disagreements over ideas and opinions related to the task, or how to complete the task, while relationship-based conflicts are more interpersonal, and may pertain to personality clashes or traits.
Although task conflict is widely believed to be beneficial, and relationship conflict destructive, evidence does not always support this conclusion. One study develops the idea that the emotion regulation abilities of team members affect how they manage task and relationship conflict, both as individuals and as a team. Findings from a field study involving 39 teams (Zhang, et al 2012) support the argument that individuals skilled in emotion regulation can take advantage of task conflict to perform effectively and limit the negative impact of relationship conflict.
The question is, then, how do we facilitate our teams in developing their emotional regulation, and approach to managing team conflict?
Behfar et al. (2008) found that poorly performing teams tended to take an ad hoc approach to managing conflict, rarely correcting the root causes of conflict, whereas highly performing teams tended to develop conflict management strategies that promoted understanding, provided equitable treatment of all parties, and emphasised the concern with managing both task accomplishment and the interests of individual team members.
Sooner or later, all teams run into conflict. That is an inevitability, and teams should anticipate and prepare for how they will utilise this conflict. Teams who do not experience conflict, or say they do not, merely operate under an illusion, one in which individuals are likely to be holding back, perhaps to preserve a misplaced sense of harmony. These teams are often amicable and friendly, but are unlikely to live up to their true potential.
Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a fascinating book that firstly creates a fable of a CEO taking over a company which is low on trust and high on dysfunction. Over the course of the fable, we find out the five dysfunctions of teams, which Lencioni then explains in depth at the end. The five dysfunctions, as highlighted in the graphic below, are: absence of trust, which leads to fear of conflict, which leads to lack of commitment, which leads to avoidance of accountability, and finally inattention to results. Put simply, if the team doesn’t have a culture of trust and open discussion at the outset, then collaboration and buy in is less likely to occur, leading to reduced commitment and effectiveness.
Have a look at the graphic, and reflect on your own teams. Is it possible that your team don’t feel confident enough to discuss and exchange ideas? Can you relate to the escalation of the pyramid? Having recently surveyed teams in both the education and corporate sectors, I can assure you that questions such as ‘We take time to find new ways to improve our team’s work processes’ or ‘it is easy to discuss difficult issues in this team’ often receive low agreement, and therefore every team should explore this area.
As a 2020 NASA (yes, NASA!) podcast discusses, ‘the goal is not to reduce conflict. The goal is to manage conflict. You nurture the kind of conflict that is going to lead to constructive criticism, and then you work towards minimizing the conflict that is going to create interpersonal issues amongst people.’
Suzanne Bell, a teams expert also contributing to the podcast, goes on to explain that team members need to be highly agreeable in nature, but qualifies that by discussing that agreeability is more about warmth, friendliness, tact, etc. which means that when conflicts do arise, they have the traits to ensure that the conflict does not become personal. So we use our agreeability not to avoid conflict, but to manage conflict successfully.
The role of a leader in managing conflict is vital. This can start by a team leader inviting feedback of their own performance, or inviting conflict and objective feedback to an idea they have presented. Modelling how to deal with conflict will help create team norms. Beyond this, managers and trainers may be able to help team members strengthen their emotion regulation skills so that they can deploy attention, reappraise the situation, and suppress the expression of negative feelings (Kanfer & Kantrowitz, 2002). In addition, managers and team leaders can encourage groups to collaborate, expressing their ideas openly and working to integrate them into viable solutions teams are apt to be well prepared to make use of task conflict to gather information, create alternative resolutions to issues, and implement solutions, thereby promoting group performance (Jiang, et al, 2012)
To resolve conflict, teammates need to participate in open and honest communication. This can occur only if they do not feel worried about being judged or ridiculed by others on the team, and can engage in difficult conversations about a problem. This is why psychological safety is a must in teamwork and why we keep coming back to this vital area of team life.
Five practical tips for managing conflict in your team
1.Conflict is part of the narrative and vision
Part of a team’s norms and behaviours should be the idea that conflict is part of what makes us a good team. ‘We will disagree on things, we will work together to iron out differences of opinion, and ultimately we will use our collective diversity as a strength. It’s important that when we disagree, we remember that it is not personal, that we are a team, and that we are working together for the best possible outcome’. This narrative should be ever present, especially when a team is working on a project or about to start a discussion.
2. Create the right team conditions
As mentioned earlier, a team that has high trust and psychological safety, will find it much easier to engage in task-related conflict. Establishing this team culture takes time and effort, but means that you will be able to work as a group to feel united by your differences. In other words, create the best possible team conditions before introducing and encouraging conflict.
3. Conflict framework and radical candour
An effective way to introduce healthy conflict into your team is to create an agreed framework for how this might work. Firstly, using the famous quadrant from best-selling book Radical Candor can help the team understand how we can care personally and challenge directly, along with avoiding the traps of the other less effective feedback methods. Building on this, the team could agree and anticipate a way to deal with conflict in meetings; this could be a script, some key phrases, or agreeing how we will behave and speak to each other during task-conflict. For example, ‘when we do disagree on something during a task we will…’ – this then becomes a shared agreement that can be referred back to.
4. Addressing conflict when it arises
When conflict does arrive, the team leader may need to facilitate it within the group, for example by allowing everyone an equal chance to give their views, by focusing on the task and its processes, exploring the rationale and vision for the tasks, and finally in helping team members to avoid blame or interpersonal conflict. Once the team sees that conflict is handled in a constructive, safe manner, they will be more willing to exchange views and openly debate and discuss their work.
5. Celebrate the conflict gains
Many of us don’t relish the thought of conflict with our colleagues; therefore, if a team does have some healthy, constructive discussions in a meeting, it’s important to celebrate that. We should embrace both the way that the team worked through a problem as a group, but also the benefits of doing that – for example, the improved process or idea that has arisen from the conflict. This frames conflict as something positive to experience together – the group becomes more united, and the results improve.
The bad apple experiment actually discovered something just as, if not more important. One team had a member who had the perfect counterbalance to the mole’s disruptive tactics. Each time they tried to disturb the group, the other team member, let’s call them the good apple, would defuse this with warmth, humour, and steering the group back on track. This team performed as well as the non-mole teams, thanks to the good apple’s healthy way of managing potential conflict.
The challenge for us as team members and leaders is how we can reframe team conflict and utilise it to unlock the team’s best thinking. By understanding conflict, and managing it constructively, we can increase our good apples and thrive together.
If you’d like to talk further about how I have applied surveys, psychological safety, or other methods to improve team conflict, please get in touch.
Thanks for reading
Behfar, K. J., Peterson, R. S., Mannix, E. A., & Trochim, W. M. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 170 –188. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.170
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. London
Jiang, J, Zhang X, Tjosvold, D (2012) Emotion regulation as a boundary condition of the relationship between team conflict and performance: A multi-level examination. Journal of Organizational Behavior, J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 714–734 (2013)
Kanfer, R., &Kantrowitz, T. M. (2002). Emotion regulation command and control of emotion in work life. In R. G. Lord, R. J Klimoski, & R. Kanfer (Eds.), Emotions in the workplace: Understanding the structure and role of emotions in organizationalbehavior (pp. 433–72). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development interventions: Evidence-based approaches for improving teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 517–531. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000295
Nasa (2020) Ep 175: The Science of Teams | NASA