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Conflict in teams: what is a healthy dose?

Teams need conflict if they are to grow; not all conflict is bad, and conflict doesn’t need to mean all-out war. These statements often surprise people. However, when disagreements arise in teams, they can lead to learning and more innovative solutions. In this article, we explore conflict in teams and try to answer the question: what is a healthy dose of conflict?

Why do we need conflict

When thinking about the benefits of diversity, we invite leaders to think about the last time they were challenged in a meeting. If no examples do not come to mind, the chances are that there isn’t enough diversity of thought, or worse, enough psychological safety to hear the diversity that does exist in the team.

One of the benefits of being a team is that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. In order to achieve that, there needs to be disagreement and discussion. The psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, describing his partnership with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky said:

“We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily and sufficiently different to surprise each other”.

Mutual respect and challenge, leading to ground-breaking research and innovation, are firmly in the camp of “healthy conflict”. Disagreements can lead to new ways of thinking and for the parts to come together to form a more powerful whole. Healthy conflict produces change and can help move things forward when teams are stuck.

When is conflict unhealthy?

However, respect is not always a feature of conflict. Conflict can lead to explosive reactions and an environment heavy with bullying and fear. Of course, much like the Nobel Prize-winning example above, this is an extreme, but unhealthy conflict is prevalent in many professional services firms. How can we spot it?

Outside of the obvious signs of workplace absenteeism and high staff turnover, the following may indicate a culture of unhealthy conflict:

  • Silence: Employees are reluctant to share a point of view, particularly those in more junior positions. The danger here is that silence might be thought of by partners as typifying an environment lacking in conflict. However, it could actually mark a fear to speak up, for fear of humiliation or of ideas being dismissed. Harmony might not be what it seems.

  • Circular arguments: If your team are constantly repeating the same discussion over and over, without ever coming to a conclusion, it is likely that patterns have formed and the team is unable to get to the heart of the matter. What isn’t being said?

  • Poor communication: Conflict can result in direct insults, or in individuals feeling belittled or hurt. This is an extreme example of poor communication, but cultures which are marked by unhealthy conflict are likely to have other signs of poor communication: feedback will be low or avoided, and individuals will cover up mistakes and be unwilling and unable to ask questions.

  • Gossip and cliques: A firm with unhealthy conflict is likely to suffer from watercooler gossip and cliques. Office politics are often unavoidable, but when you are exhausted by running the gauntlet of them, it is probably a sign that you don’t have a healthy conflict resolution style.

Not what it seems on the surface: patterns and conflict resolution style

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model plots individual conflict styles against two axes: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness can be seen in how important it is to get your own way. Cooperativeness can be seen as similar to empathy: how important are the needs of others?

As with all preferences, the model does not suggest that there is a right way or a wrong way to resolve conflicts. Different models will suit different situations – but being stuck in one style is unlikely to result in the best solution all the time. An exercise that you might like to do in your team is to consider what style best reflects your method of resolving conflict. What might this be suited to? Where might you come unstuck?

To find out how our team coaches can ask you the tough questions and move you from healthy to unhealthy conflict, why don’t you get in touch?


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