Two colleagues, screaming at each other across the conference room, are unlikely to generate good professional or personal outcomes. However, in certain conditions, conflict can improve decision making, energise employees and enhance team performance. Read on to find out how you and your team can benefit from healthy conflict.
The English Aversion To Conflict
The English are well-known for their aversion to conflict. I was born in England to English parents. However, I’ve become more aware of our peculiar biases, as I’ve worked with colleagues and clients of different nationalities.
The English allergy to any kind of confrontation can manifest in our indirect and vague approach to communication. There is often a significant difference between what we say, what we mean, and what is understood. For example, “not bad” means something is, in fact, quite good, but this may be interpreted as meaning something is quite poor. “That’s a courageous proposal” implies that I think you are crazy. In contrast, if you are a straight-talking Finn, you probably assume that I think you are brave. Unfortunately, this indirect, conflict-averse approach does not lend itself to wellbeing or optimal performance. Accordingly, I’m very interested in improving my relationship with conflict. Fortunately, science has something to offer, describing how conflict can enhance team performance in several ways.
Relationship vs Task Conflict
The first step to embracing conflict as a way to enhance performance is to recognise the distinction between relationship and task conflict.
Relationship conflict is personal, emotional and can relate to individual tastes, political preferences, values, and interpersonal style. Relationship conflict generally results in unhelpful tensions and hostility. For example, in a relationship conflict, colleagues may say “You’ve only prioritised this item because you think it’s the best way to stand out and get a promotion. You never care about the bigger picture.”
Task conflict is limited to expressing differences of opinion related to work tasks. Colleagues may disagree about the distribution of resources, procedures and policies, or over judgments and interpretation of facts. For example, in a task conflict, colleagues may say “I disagree with how you have prioritised this item because it risks overstretching our budget. Perhaps we should take some time to map out the costs, again.”
I. Improve decision making and problem solving
When conflict focuses on tasks, not relationships, the conflict is more likely to improve the exchange of information and create a foundation for effective problem-solving and better decisions.
II. Energise & Excite Employees
During intense conflicts, there can be a tendency for colleagues to ‘clash and argue’. This increases the likelihood that conflict becomes relational and often results in colleagues focussing on ‘broadcasting’ and defending their perspective, rather than working towards a compromise or mutually beneficial outcome.
In contrast, if colleagues can reduce the intensity of the conflict, perhaps by taking a break, or bringing in a mediator, the interaction is more likely to take the form of “debating and expressing.” Colleagues can continue to disagree and even argue, but the interaction is characterised by more listening and problem solving by both parties. Milder conflict, marked by debating and expressing, also results in more useful exchanges of information and, according to some evidence, is likely to leave team members feeling energised and excited.
III. Increase Retention, Revenue & Effectiveness
The results of a recent study led by Google, which included 180 teams, suggests that psychological safety, determined by perceptions of the consequences of risk-taking, is the number 1 predictor of team performance.
In environments with low psychological safety, team members may be concerned that they will be perceived as ignorant or incompetent, if they speak out, question something, or share an idea. Disagreement is also more likely to promote relationship conflict and ‘clash and argue’ interactions in psychologically unsafe environments.
In contrast, in an environment with high psychological safety, team members feel confident that they can speak up, question and share ideas without being embarrassed or punished. Conflict is more likely to be task-focused, based on debating and expressing, in psychologically safe environments.
Prior studies also report that team performance, assessed as appropriate use of management concepts, accuracy of solutions provided, quality of evidence used, and clarity of written communication, improved in psychologically safe environments.
In environments with high psychological safety, employees may also be less likely to leave, share and benefit from a greater diversity of ideas, generate higher revenues and be rated as effective, more often.
What About You And Your Team?
It seems that psychological safety can improve team performance in at least seven ways.
- Appropriate use of concepts
- Accuracy of solutions provided
- Quality of evidence used
- Clarity of written communication
- Reduced turnover intention
- Greater diversity of ideas
- Higher revenues
- De Dreu, C. K. W., & Weingart, L. R. (2003). Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 741–749.
- Todorova, G., Bear, J.B. & Weingart, L.R. (2014) Can conflict be energizing? a study of task conflict, positive emotions, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology. 99 (3) 451-467.
- Bradley, B.H., Postlethwaite, B.E., Klotz, A.C., Hamdani, M.R, Brown, K.G. (2012) Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: the critical role of team psychological safety climate. Journal of Applied Psychology. 97(1) 151-158.
- Google (2019) Guide: Understand team effectiveness. Retrieved 24/11/2019.