Why a Team in Conflict Can Be a Good Thing

Feb 2, 2015
6 Min Read

Can’t we all just get along? It seems that when it comes to teams, that’s a plea often made by managers. But research shows that conflict among team members may deliver the best business results.

One of the biggest headaches for a manager is when members of a team don’t really like working together.

This dislike can range from snotty comments muttered during meetings to outright confrontations among team members. A manager is put in the unenviable position of taking on the role of playground supervisor/negotiator/drill sergeant as he or she tries to get results from a team that needs to function as a cohesive unit.

But could it be that friction among team members is a good thing and managers should learn to appreciate it?

Recently a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Washington University of a large U.S. professional services firm found that men and women don’t really like working together on teams. Individual workers reported they were more satisfied with their jobs when they were on teams filled mostly with those of their own gender.

“People are more comfortable around people who are like them,” says Sara Fisher Ellison, a co-author at MIT.

Interestingly, however, business results were shown to be much better when men and women worked together.

Ellison explains that could be because teams filled with similar individuals “socialize more and work less,” and various perspectives and skills may help teams function at a higher level. Researchers say that moving all female teams or all male teams to coed teams would boost revenue by 41%.

Further, she suggests that companies may need to do more to help team members embrace differences instead of seeing them as a point of contention.

Other research has found that instead of managers dreading some team conflict, they should learn to harness its power.

“[T]he mere presence of diversity you can see, such as a person's race or gender, actually cues a team in that there's likely to be differences of opinion. That cuing turns out to enhance the team's ability to handle conflict, because members expect it and are not surprised when it surfaces," says Margaret A. Neale, a management professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who focuses on negotiation and team performance. “A more homogeneous team, in contrast, won't handle conflict as well because the team doesn't expect it.”

Additional research backs up the benefit of diverse teams, as Neale found that while senior team members reported greater satisfaction with new members who were similar to them, better results were actually achieved when the new members were more diverse.

Still, while teams that have conflict are more likely to be innovative, it’s still going to be a headache for the manager if that conflict is personal and not just intellectual. The best course of action is to already have conflict resolution management procedures in place. If you don’t, then experts recommend:

  1. Acting quickly. Don’t hang back, hoping the conflict will resolve itself. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be to resolve and get the team back on track.
  2. Being respectful. Leaders cannot appear to take sides in a dispute, so show respect for each side and fully hear each side of the story.
  3. Keeping goals a priority. Remind the group of why it was formed and its purpose. Pointing out the things a team agrees upon is important to keep it focused on how to move forward.
  4. Going for a win. Try to find a simple task that will be easy for the team to accomplish together. This helps re-establish the success of the group and show they can work together.

As a leader, it’s important to keep in mind that there is always going to be conflict, but learning to direct that energy into something positive is possible. As Thomas Payne noted: “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

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