It turns out successful teams have plenty of conflict.
Their victories come in managing it the right way.
Despite spending most of their careers in top-down management structures, senior military officers eventually find themselves serving in environments where they are leading, or being led by, their peers. As most any colonel can attest, peer teams often have, for lack of a better term, complex group dynamics.
Like their counterparts in the business world, these senior officers often find themselves hamstrung by contentious meetings, unable to leverage their teams’ strengths, and incapable of driving those teams toward creative, forward-thinking solutions.
My research into strategic leadership—conducted over the course of two decades with the help of my own team members, and confirmed during my tenure at the U.S. Army War College—might offer some solutions.
Successful teams have three things in common: they meet their performance goals; their members feel satisfied that they are learning/benefiting from being a part of the team; and the process the team uses to collaborate sets it up for future success.1 But my work has found that in as little as five weeks of working together, only about twenty-five percent of teams meet these criteria.2 The rest of the teams typically experience less-than-ideal processes and a decline in performance and/or satisfaction.
What goes wrong? Most team members report that conflict among members gets in the way. The effect of that conflict, however, is not always straightforward. Under the right conditions, for example, conflict can stimulate divergent thinking and lead to improved problem solving. On the other hand, it also tends to increase defensiveness, distract members from effective problem solving, and generate interpersonal animosity.
So how can a team harness the benefits and limit the liabilities of conflict? It’s all in how that conflict is managed.
There are clear and reliable patterns associated with both effective and ineffective conflict management. These patterns center on a critical tradeoff between getting work done and making individual members happy. The most effective teams create strategies to do both, but the majority of teams sacrifice one or the other.
Teams that are proactive in identifying conflicts and addressing them before they escalate have more satisfied members. Teams that operate in reactive mode, wherein conflicts take them by surprise or keep the team in constant firefighting mode, have less satisfied members.
These tradeoffs around performance and satisfaction are summarized below in the accompanying chart. In general, higher-performing teams, like those found in quadrants 1 and 3 (top and bottom left, respectively), create conflict-resolution strategies that make it clear how individuals need to contribute to the team and how that contribution aligns with the individual’s interests. Lower-performing teams, like those found in quadrants 2 and 4 (top and bottom right), focus more on appeasing individuals and addressing idiosyncrasies.
Let’s look at the teams in each quadrant. Quadrant 4 teams tend to have an unorganized or ad hoc approach to managing their conflict. They not only fail to balance individual versus team interests, they actually fail to address either one. Their strategies focus more on immediate complaints rather than underlying interests. A history of unfocused and unsuccessful conflict attempts combined with an imbalance of individual versus team interests generally limits the willingness and ability of members to engage in good-faith conflict resolution. When members of Quadrant 4 teams do try to engage with one another, they often opt for Band-Aid strategies that do not address how the team is structured. These teams usually experience high turnover and require significant outside intervention to recover.
Quadrant 2 teams, meanwhile, orient themselves to resolve conflict using the principle of equality—giving equal weight to every individual’s interest. This focus on equality among individuals creates a team norm that values consensus and harmony at the cost of decision quality. For example, these teams consider themselves proactive because their discussions identify what it will take to keep each person positive and engaged in the team. This is indeed a good practice, but only when aligned with what the team is trying to achieve.
Teams in Quadrant 3, by contrast, orient themselves to resolve conflict with enforced equity. These teams quickly learn from and address their conflicts. These teams’ strategies typically revolve around how to restore and enforce equity. For example, they often create rules, explicit agreements, and clear expectations about how to force members into playing an appropriate part. But these are less than ideal because they are put into place after there is a problem. This decreases member satisfaction because the balance of individual versus team interests tips toward the team side.
Quadrant 1 teams are the most “ideal,” because they resolve conflict using the principle of equity—each member is asked to contribute his or her fair share only in ways that serve the team. This means that not everyone equally gets what he or she wants, but members usually understand why team decisions are fair and equitable. The strategies unique to these teams include the following:
- Having explicit discussions about what members want to do versus what the team needs each person to do;
- Proactively forecasting preventable problems;
- Taking time to discuss preventable problems; and
- Focusing on the content of the complaint during a conflict rather than how it is delivered.
While Quadrant 1 teams are examples of “ideal” collaboration, that does not mean they do not experience difficult conflict. In fact, great teams typically have all the same types and severity of conflict that other teams have. Quadrant 1 teams are simply better able to contain negative effects by using equitable resolutions as an underlying principle when managing conflict. Such resolutions help maintain or restore a sense of fairness, ensure optimal resource allocation, and promote productivity and positive relationships among team members. Not using these techniques can result in behavior that detracts from team performance and/or satisfaction, as seen in the other quadrants.
Sustaining a high-performing, highly satisfied team takes a great deal of maintenance and awareness. Over the lifespan of a team, it is highly likely that it will cycle through several or all the quadrants. Understanding the effect that different orientations toward conflict-management strategies have on a team’s viability is important because it helps a team recognize where there are imbalances that create negative processes and interactions—and where to focus resources to prevent or reverse the negative effects. TAL
1. J. Richard Hackman & Charles G. Morris, Group Tasks, Group Interaction Process, and Group Performance Effectiveness: A Review and Proposed Integration, 8 Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 45-99 (1975).
2. This article is a summary of the research presented in: Kristin Behfar, Randall Peterson, Elizabeth Mannix, & William Trochim, The Critical Role of Conflict Resolution in Teams: A Close Look at the Links between Conflict Type, Conflict Management Strategies, and Team Outcomes, 93 J. Applied Psychol. 170-88 (2008).