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Conflict in Teams - Opportunity or Threat

A team is usually a small group of people that complement each other in skills and strengths who are committed to and share performance goals for which they hold themselves accountable. And whilst that diversity is critical to its success, it can also lead to conflict.

Conflict in teams can be productive and contribute to team success. Lencioni, in ‘The Five Dysfunctions of Teams’ describes what is required to be a high performing team.

Conflict can lead to higher performance if team members trust each other so they can openly discuss differences (of opinion, approach, views, options, priorities). When differences can be and are openly discussed, any outcome of that discussion leads to strong commitment from all and only when there is strong commitment do people feel accountable.

The distinction between productive and unproductive conflict is not in the cause of the conflict but in the process of dealing with it and the associated outcome. Productive conflict is about open communication that encourages a collaborative approach to resolve conflict, be creative and find solutions. It gives opportunities to learn and grow and enhances relationships. Unproductive conflict however involves (passive-) aggressive communication, lack of listening, blame, stress and burn-out, deteriorated trust and inhibition of learning and growth.

Unproductive conflict needs addressing, as the costs are too high for teams and individuals. It needs the five elements of the conflict resolution process to restore the team and allow it to perform well. These elements are the creation and development of trust and respect, for all team members to listen and to be heard, to put differences in perspective and make people open up to each other’s views and start to doubt their own 100% righteousness. On top, they need to be made aware of the risks of not resolving the conflict productively, such as missing goals, high anxiety levels, lack of learning and growth and perhaps the negative impact on money and career.

People want to work in teams with high levels of trust, communication and commitment. Team leaders have their work cut out when conflicts become unproductive and may well benefit from a team coach or some 3rd party mediation to support that conflict resolution process.


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