The Good Fight: Conflict @Work and What To Do About It

Last week, I was on an early evening power waddle* with a friend.  Typical of these waddles, we were discussing work. My friend started bemoaning the fact that the team she was working on was plagued by conflict. As we pumped our arms and swung our hips, my friend proceeded to tell me about the fights, disagreements and shouting matches her team was having.  Right before she started to ponder what strategies she should use to improve the conflict on the team, I cheekily asked her: “Well, what type of conflict is your team having? What are you guys fighting about?”


Despite its negative connotation, conflict is not inherently bad nor inherently good.  At times conflict is awful - we fight over intractable differences and fight because we fundamentally don’t agree with the beliefs of our teammates (or family members or life partners).  We feel resentment and anger towards those that are conflictual towards us. Projects, teams, (and marriages) are derailed over this type of conflict. But fighting can be good and fighting well is a necessary skill (as long-exalted by couples therapists everywhere).  Productive conflict reduces groupthink and tests our implicit (and potentially biased) assumptions.  Conflict generates new and innovative ideas.  


On many teams, all conflict feels the same. We’re shouting at each other, people feel disrespected and get huffy. A disagreement about when to meet snowballs into simmering ire about how one teammate is just so selfish.  But there are distinct types of conflict, and understanding what we’re fighting about is critical:  we can then understand if our conflict is productive or damaging.  To be a great manager, it’s important to know what types of conflict your team is experiencing and what to do about it.  


For the visual learners out there….first, a simple illustration: 



The Three Types of Conflict and What Drives Them


1. Relationship Conflict:  Ah, this is the conflict that’s really stinky.  This is the conflict that results because of entrenched differences amongst team members around beliefs, values and interpersonal incompatibilities.  In short, this is the type of conflict that happens when you really just don’t like your team member and fundamentally disagree with how he views the world.  

  • Relationship conflict destroys teams. It’s unproductive, destroys trust and ruins communication.   High-performing teams have low levels of relationship conflict throughout their lives.  

  • So what do I do? Go back to the fundamentals of building a great team:  focus on trust building, empathy, and getting your team to know each other in a deeper way. 

  • Psychologist Lori Gottlieb writes that “it’s impossible to get to know people deeply and not come to like them.”   For really bad bouts of relationship conflict, you need to get your team to a place where they deeply know each other and build a sense of liking.   

  • One challenge with relationship conflict is that it’s often between two members on a team, but the negativity spills over into the rest of the team (a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion”).  So, as a manager, you may need to work through these bilateral frictions to support the rest of the team functioning.  

2. Task Conflict: Yay to task conflict! Task conflict is the result of disagreements about ideas or the actual work getting done.  For example, if your team is in a heated debate about whether your new product should contain a bell or a whistle; or whether candidate A or candidate B is better for the role you’re hiring - that’s task conflict. 

  • Task conflict helps teams perform better!  It reduces groupthink and tests implicit biases.  It helps to generate new and innovative ideas. Strong teams have a healthy amount of task conflict.  You should be concerned if your team never disagrees about anything!

  • So what do I do? First and foremost, make sure your team is not totally homogeneous.  Differences in backgrounds, experiences, functions, ages, etc., can all help with task conflict.  We each bring our different perspectives and lived experiences to a problem at hand. A couple of more ideas include: 

  • Appoint a devil’s advocate to encourage task conflict if your team has a hard time disagreeing with each other (or is afraid to speak up).  For big decisions, always make sure the other side is fully argued and explored.  

  • Brainstorm, but brainstorm alone.  When attempting to generate big ideas, have your team members first brainstorm alone, then come to the group to discuss and argue ideas.  This prevents “mental contagion,” the phenomenon that occurs when our ideas are influenced by what was said first, or said by a person in power.  

  • Encourage and reward healthy debate on your team. Praise those team members who engage in task conflict.  Make the courage to dissent part of your formal review process and hold up examples of individuals in your company who are great at dissenting.  

3. Process Conflict:  Ah, the goldilocks of conflict.  Process conflict is the disagreements or disputes the team gets in about scheduling, logistics, assigning work, and the overall process of how the work gets done.  Process conflict often occurs at the beginning and end of projects, as work is getting allocated, and as a project is about to close or be completed.

  • Process conflict is necessary, but too much can frustrate team members, and lead to *gasp* relationship conflict.  Personally, process conflict drives me bananas.  I hate the time spent disagreeing about what time the meeting should be, or disagreeing about who does what.  But, this conflict helps with figuring out the most effective or efficient way of getting work done, and when there isn’t healthy debate over process, team members often get resentful over work allocation or deadlines.  

  • So what do I do? Focus on establishing clear norms at the beginning of the life of the team.  Develop a set of norms around how work typically gets done, how the team approaches big decisions (majority or consensus or leader decides?), and how meetings typically run.  The more your team sticks to these norms and develops a routine around how work gets done, the more effective your process conflict becomes. (Here’s a handy template to help establish team norms).  

  • Figure out how to resolve process conflict.  For example, when your team disagrees on meeting times, how is that disagreement resolved?  Teams that have process conflict, but then resolve it quickly are high-performing!

So, what do these three types of conflict look like on a high performing team?  


A couple of years ago I was part of a team that was rife with conflict.  Our business was struggling and we fought about what the best course of action was to right the ship.  The tactics deployed in our fight included (but were not limited to): drowning out others’ ideas by yelling loudly, the silent treatment, spontaneous bursts of crying, strategic bursts of crying, apathy, and denial that there was conflict.  Our conflict over ideas (task conflict) and how to make the decision about the idea (process conflict) quickly escalated to relationship conflict. And once it got to relationship conflict, trust got destroyed and it was hard to recover. 


I share this to illustrate that I know conflict is messy and know that simply putting conflict in three neat categories is not a quick, easy fix.  But being more mindful about the type of conflict your team is experiencing and making your team aware of when that conflict is good helps to prevent the negative spiral that can result.  So next time you’re yelling at a teammate or quietly seething but afraid to bring a disagreeing viewpoint to your group, think about what you’re fighting for.  


Happy fighting!


TL;DR

  • Conflict is neither good nor bad. Some types of conflict are productive, while others are detrimental to team functioning. 

  • Relationship conflict results from interpersonal incompatibilities.  Relationship conflict hurts team trust, communication, and ultimately team functioning.  

  • Task conflict results from disagreements about work product or ideas.  Teams, especially those focused on creative tasks, should embrace and encourage task conflict.  

  • Process conflict is the disagreements that result from logistics, scheduling, and planning how work gets done.  Process conflict is often a necessary part of every team, but process conflict that gets out of hand can ultimately hurt your team.  


* For those new subscribers, a power waddle is a power walk typically occurring after brunch, best illustrated by this video.

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