“Would you just shut up for a minute?”
This question, posed to a colleague by a younger version of myself, demonstrates my immaturity, but it also portrays a safe environment where I felt empowered to speak up. It portrays an environment in which conflict thrives. Fortunately for me, my teammates were compassionate and, in spite of my manners, turned it into healthy conflict.
The benefits of healthy team conflict include higher levels of engagement, greater innovation, and better decision-making, just to name a few. “If team members are never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization,” claims Patrick Lencioni in Overcoming the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.
While I have witnessed improved decision-making as a result of conflict, I have also seen quite a few teams engage in conflict with less than ideal outcomes. In fact, I often notice performance suffering as a result of conflict. In order to understand this paradox, we must examine two factors which influence conflict outcomes – the type of conflict and the environment in which the conflict occurs.
Team conflict can be separated into two categories: relationship-based and task-based. Relationship-based conflicts are disagreements that arise during social interactions, while task-based conflicts relate to the execution of the work. For example, a debate on the merits of MongoDB to solve the problem at hand is task-based, while annoyance with a team member who is always late is relationship-based. The “shut up” request to my colleague was certainly relationship-based.
A common hypothesis is that relationship-based conflict always has a negative impact on team performance, while task-based conflict enhances performance. In 2003, the Journal of Applied Psychology published a meta-analysis which confirmed that relationship-based conflict hinders teams. However, it also found that, on average, task-based conflict has a negative impact on performance. A small portion of the teams in this analysis demonstrated improved performance as a result of task-based conflict, but such conflict hindered performance as a whole.
In an attempt to understand the inconsistent results of task-based conflict, a 2012 study examined environment as the moderator. This study found that improved performance from task-based conflict correlates with a safe environment. Safety, as defined by Amy Edmundson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” In such an environment, task-based conflict results in improved team performance.
These studies reveal that leaders and coaches must play an active role in fostering an environment where teams can achieve healthy, vibrant conflict. Creating a safe environment requires deliberate effort (stay tuned for future posts on this topic). The rewards of the effort, however, are seemingly unlimited. In addition to enabling healthy task-based conflict, a safe, trusting environment is also the key to resolving relationship-based conflict. The combination is a guaranteed performance boost for your team.