Last week, we talked about how, to be truly high-performing, teams must engage in constructive conflict and debate. The “constructive” piece is key to this. Without a doubt, there are types of conflict that are detrimental to a team’s performance. So, how can the process of engaging in conflict and debate be appropriately managed so it heightens—not lowers—performance?
To successfully manage conflict, we must first understand the ways in which it emerges. Conflict in teams can be broken down into three broad types: task, relationship, and process.
This involves disagreements about the content and/or outcomes of the team’s task. For example, consider the diverse perspectives a neuroscientist, an engineer, and a microbiologist might bring to the table when trying to find a cure for a rare brain trauma. They would likely discuss what that cure, or outcome, might be, and almost certainly their diverse perspectives would cause disagreements among them.
Conflicts of this type center on disagreements stemming from interpersonal issues within a team. Consider the brain trauma research team mentioned above – only this time, the team includes a member who has outright belittled others’ ideas in the past. Rather than focusing on the content of suggestions and ideas, they flatly suggest their peers’ thinking is stupid or irrelevant without showing it due consideration. All interactions between this individual and others will likely be rife with disagreements.
This entails disagreement about how tasks will be accomplished. Think again of the brain trauma research team. Now, they’ve come into conflict over how to distribute various administrative tasks among the team. Specifically, they can’t agree on how final decisions will be made – who has final decision rights – or who will track minutes during their meeting. This is a team in conflict over process.
Why Knowing the 3 Types of Conflict Matters
It’s helpful to think about this framework when aiming to engage in constructive conflict, as some types of conflict are more productive than others. Identifying the type of conflict your team is facing (and importantly, giving it a specific label) can help discern whether to foster dialogue around the issue and continue the debate, or end it and move on.
For instance, relationship conflict tends to negatively impact performance as it can increase hostility among group members, reduce collaboration, and take away from the task at hand. It almost always leads to negative team outcomes, and should be ended.
Task conflict, however, can positively impact team performance as it necessitates an increased understanding of the task and promotes critical evaluation of others’ ideas. If our team of experts welcomed conflict-filled conversation about how to move forward with the brain trauma case, they would probably figure out a unique, well-rounded solution.
Process conflict is a bit of a mixed bag – in some cases, it can be beneficial as it helps to clarify each member’s role and the unique value they have to offer. In other cases (for instance, if people don’t feel their unique value is appreciated), it might morph into a power struggle centered on globally evaluating individual teammates (e.g., “Why should Rachel get to make the final decision when she is the least qualified?”). Managing that fine line is a skill the team leader must develop.
In most situations, it can be difficult to identify a single type of conflict. Conflict spills over from relationships to tasks to processes, and often happens without a clear order or breaking point. A high-performing team leader can identify where one type of task conflict ends and another begins.
When productive conflict is fostered and counterproductive conflict is quickly shut down, team members begin to feel at ease taking risks, challenging one another, and speaking up, as they are confident their team will not reject or punish them for doing so. At best, this will result in more efficient execution of tasks, more creative and innovative outcomes, and a synergy that individuals alone are not able to achieve.