It’s Nothing Personal: The Constructive Potential of Conflict Within Teams

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

The study of conflict within teams is a hot topic among organization scholars and practitioners. Traditionally, the major distinction in team conflict has been between conflicts about members’ relationships, or those concerning the task of the team. Relationship conflicts are disagreements between members originating in differences in personality or mismatched values and norms for behavior. Task conflicts are specific to the purpose of the team including what is to be done, how it is done, and when it is complete. More recently, a third type of conflict within teams has been identified: process conflict, or conflict over how to proceed with a task. This includes the division of labor and decisions about responsibility, as well as member ownership over different aspects of the task. While past research suggests that all conflict has a negative impact on the performance of a team, a recent meta-analysis of research suggests otherwise.

This research combined data from 116 studies published between 1990 and 2010, in order to capture overall trends in group conflict research. The findings paint a more complex picture of the impact of these types of conflict:

– Overall, conflict tends to have a stronger impact on team satisfaction and cohesion than on performance.

– Process and relationship conflicts are more strongly related to decreases in team member satisfaction than task conflicts.

– Cohesion suffers in the presence of relationship, but not task conflicts.

– Both process and relationship conflicts are associated with decreased team performance. In fact, when there is both increased relationship and process conflict, performance is further diminished.

– Task conflicts can actually enhance performance. Only when relationship conflicts are high do task conflicts have a negative impact on cohesion and member satisfaction.

– Management teams, as compared to lower-level teams, are better able to prevent task conflicts from escalating into relationship conflicts.

This research builds on past assumptions about conflict that leaders and consultants should heed: effective teams are not devoid of conflict, but make use of conflict in constructive ways. Conflicts over the task at hand can result in innovations, with members sharing and debating competing ideas. When conflicts get personal, destructive dynamics develop. Process conflicts form when the approach to completing a task leaves out certain team members, or fails to recognize individual team member needs to contribute in ways that match their skills, abilities and ambitions. When this happens, relationships suffer, and team members struggle to maintain cohesion and work effectively together – further escalating the destructive dynamic.

de Wit, F. R., Greer, L. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2012). The paradox of intragroup conflict: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 360-390.

                        author

Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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