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Not all Fights are Alike: Team Conflict Can Be Productive
November 10, 2021

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Conflict is inevitable. But psychologists have distinguished between conflicts that are productive – task-based conflicts – and conflicts that are destructive – relationship-based conflicts.

Task-based conflict happens when:

  • Team members disagree about how to handle a situation or solve a problem.
  • Team members have diverse expertise.
  • Team members have different perspectives.

On the other hand, relationship conflict can seriously hurt a team. This can occur when team members don’t take the time to listen to competing perspectives and assume that others aren’t “on their side.”

And while we may shy away from team conflict, research shows that the right kind of conflict can lead to highly productive teams who produce creative, innovative work, spurred on by their disagreements, and inspired by their diverse perspectives. In fact, teams who don’t have conflicts can fall prey to common team pitfalls including team members being afraid to speak up, or simply not speaking up because team members assume that the group has reached a consensus.

You can manage conflict on your team by:

Asking those you trust outside of your team to poke holes in your argument. This may not feel good, but hearing trusted colleagues’ perspectives may lead you to reconsider your thinking or understand the gap between what you think and what your counterparts think.

Doing some perspective-taking. How we approach a team member and our relationship with that team member can affect our views on any number of team projects or problems. Asking others for their opinion, and really trying to understand the gap between your viewpoint and their viewpoint will both make them feel heard and make them more inclined to listen to you. Try to step into their shoes: why do they think the way they do? How can you try to understand their position? What common ground do you share?

Practicing humble inquiry. No matter your position on the team, no one knows everything. You may have expertise in one area and a good sense of the landscape of other areas, but asking team members to share their expertise (and admitting you don’t know something) goes a long way towards building a solid foundation of trust and understanding. Team members who ask questions and prompt others to voice their opinion, model a norm: no one person has all the answers; to succeed, everyone needs to feel that they should contribute.

Conflict is inevitable. But aiming for the right kind of conflict – productive disagreement over specific tasks – and preventing relationship conflict, can help your team succeed and prove to be a fertile ground for innovation.

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