The Value of Conflict

by Patty McManus

They’re ubiquitous: corporate teams with big responsibilities, under immense pressure to accomplish difficult work.  As a consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few teams that really click—smart, successful, efficient, getting the work done, and even having a good time together. There's one more thing about them: they fight.

I never quite get used to it—that electric moment when a strong disagreement begins. But I’ve made peace with my own trepidation because I trust the value of conflict, even heated conflict, in a team that is seeking a solid solution for which there are no easy answers.

Professor Maggie Neale of Stanford, a noted researcher on team dynamics, stresses that conflict is essential for teams that need to find new and innovative solutions to complex challenges. In other words, difficult questions won’t be answered by what we already know, and that means we have to be willing and able to say “no” before we can say “yes.”

Here’s a twist. Despite its potential value, teams report that their biggest concern is conflict among members. It seems my own moment of trepidation is widely shared. However, effective teams have the ability to note the discomfort and proceed anyway, rather than squelch a valuable exchange.

Diversity goes hand in hand with conflict, too. For complex tasks, diversity (of function, gender, culture, etc.) is a good thing. According to Dr. Neale, the mere fact of diversity in a team increases not only the variety of perspectives but the likelihood of conflict—which is positive as long as it’s the right kind of conflict.

Dr. Neale makes a distinction between healthy and toxic conflict in a team. Healthy conflict focuses on the task. We come up against one another in open debate that gets our differences out on the table, creating the possibility for new answers. Toxic conflict, by contrast, focuses on relationship, letting things get personal.

One thing we know in IA is that we can count on things getting personal if the process of engagement isn’t managed. Nothing will create “personality conflicts” as fast as murky decision making or conflicting roles. Teams need three things to manage the process: 1) ground rules to keep conflict from turning destructive, 2) clear direction and outcomes that the team continually revisits as understanding grows, and 3) a flexible but structured path to guide the work.

In fact, here’s a quote from Dr. Neale and a co-author that nails this truism: “To implement policies and practices that increase the diversity of the workforce without understanding how diverse individuals can come together to form effective teams is irresponsible.*”

*Mannix and Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, October 2005.

Tags : teamwork leadership conflict