Teams are an essential component of organizational life. In order for a team to get anything done, it’s members must find a way to work together effectively. Conflict practitioners commonly recognize three forms of conflict in teams: 1) task conflicts are disagreements over what the team is supposed to accomplish, 2) relationship conflicts occur when disagreements between members become personal, and 3) process conflicts concern disagreements over how the team should go about its work. Although earlier work suggested that relationship conflicts inhibit group performance while task conflicts increase group performance by, for example, enhancing creativity, more recent research suggests this is not always the case.
A recent study tells a more coherent story. These researchers identified and combined findings from 45 previous studies on task, relationship and process conflicts in teams in order to challenge the prevailing assumptions about these phenomena. They found that these conflicts contribute to team performance and outcomes in ways that previous research was not able to identify. It turns out that the process of how the team members navigate their differences is more important for predicting team performance and outcomes than the presence or magnitude of task and/or relationship conflicts. Further, team performance is best explained by the extent to which individual team member concerns are oriented within the team as a whole, as opposed to being driven mainly by self-interest. In other words, team effectiveness is primarily achieved through the process by which individual team members navigate their differences – a process that is deeply sensitive to the team versus self-orientations of the individual team members.
These findings are very important for clarifying a decade of somewhat confusing research about the effects of task and relationship conflicts on team performance. When consulting to teams, consultants may be able to more effectively intervene if, instead of focusing on addressing the relationship conflicts between individual members, they instead focus on what matters to each member in terms of individual versus team outcomes. If a team is composed of members looking out primarily for their own concerns, it seems almost inevitable that task and relationship conflicts will occur, and that team productivity will be minimal. In these cases, it is only through addressing the underlying motivations that individual members will be moved to contribute to a group process that works to successfully navigate the inevitable conflicts that emerge – allowing the team to be more effective.
DeChurch, L. A., Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., & Doty, D. (2013). Moving beyond relationship and task conflict: Toward a process-state perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(4), 559-578.