How teams can capitalize on conflict

How teams can capitalize on conflict

Organizations now rely heavily on teams and teamwork to conduct much of their business. The burgeoning diversity of team members, which increases the likelihood of divergent perspectives, is simultaneously a strength and a challenge. Also, often teams are geographically dispersed, making face-to-face communication difficult. Teams are being asked for new ideas, better methods, and novel approaches to help their organizations compete. However, competition is so relentless that even successful teams that help catapult organizations into industry-leading positions one year can soon find themselves struggling.

As teams are formed and challenged to contribute in these conditions, conflict is inevitable. Obviously, it must be handled effectively for teams to remain productive. However, perhaps the more critical issue is whether teams are experiencing enough conflict. Conflict itself, especially when innovative alternatives are being analyzed and challenged, is a necessary ingredient in the creative process. Differences are often the catalysts to vigorous debate and creative thinking. A critical challenge for leaders and teams today is how to get the best from the inevitable differences and disagreements that arise while minimizing the harm and discomfort routinely associated with conflict.

The challenge of team conflict

Over the past fifteen years researchers have recognized two principal types of organizational conflict. One type, labeled task or cognitive conflict, emerges when team members have differences of opinion but are able to stay focused on solving the problems caused by their differences. Their discussion of issues typically results in higher levels of creative thinking and better decision-making because the issues are more fully vetted.[1]

The other type of conflict, called relationship or affective conflict, occurs when team members spend more time trying to assign blame than on figuring out how to solve problems. It is associated with poorer team productivity and lowered morale.[2]

Even when teams try to effectively debate issues it is easy for their efforts to devolve into relationship conflict. Critiques of ideas can easily be perceived as personal attacks. When this happens, task conflict can quickly morph into relationship conflict, with undesirable results. So the key question becomes, how can teams deal with their inevitable differences in ways that foster constructive forms of conflict while avoiding or lessening the emergence of destructive relationship conflict?

In order to resolve conflicts effectively, team members need to be able to discuss issues openly and candidly. They need to have a sense of mutual responsibility for resolving their problems.[3] To achieve this, teams must develop the rightConflict Dynamics Model  Conflict Dynamics Profile @ Talent Tools climate to foster openness and collaboration. This requires the use of constructive communication skills and techniques that keep their discussions headed in the right direction. Teams frequently focus on their substantive tasks without taking the time to address process concerns. If they want to keep conflicts from derailing their efforts, an essential first step for teams is to establish norms and processes for dealing with the inevitable conflicts they will face.

Creating the right climate

What kinds of norms do teams need to develop in order to manage conflict effectively? Research has shown that several elements are essential in establishing the right climate for addressing conflict. These include trust and safety, collaboration, and emotional intelligence. At the outset teams should address how they will promote and support each of these elements.

Trust and safety

In order to feel comfortable enough to share thoughts and feelings openly and honestly, team members must trust their colleagues. Trust develops when team members make themselves vulnerable by being frank, open and willing to exchange fresh ideas. Team leaders can support the process of building trust by showing vulnerability themselves and ensuring that the team develops norms for interacting while under stress.

Teams can enhance the development of trust and safety through processes such as structured disclosure which enables team members to share interests, insights, and experiences safely. In addition, we encourage teams to identify or predict potential “hot topics” to eliminate surprises.


When team members share information freely, make decisions together, and are recognized and rewarded collectively, team cohesiveness increases. The formal name for these collaborative processes is behavioral integration. When it is practiced consistently, trust is reinforced, and team members can debate issues more effectively.[4]

Teams can improve their ability to collaborate through practice. One technique we advocate is “preliminary perspective taking” during which team members quickly and concisely state their starting views without interruption. We also recommend periodic team training sessions to practice devil's advocacy, reframing, and brainstorming to build collaborative skills.

Emotional intelligence (EI)

Conflict by its very nature often ignites emotions. Negative emotions can easily spread among team members through a process called emotional contagion.[5] When team members are upset, managing conflict becomes especially complicated. As defensiveness rises and openness wanes, simply communicating about the conflict is a challenge. If negative emotions are not addressed effectively destructive behaviors soon follow.

Teams can improve their emotional intelligence by utilizing assessment tools that raise self awareness.[6] With assessment results in hand, the establishment of team norms that address healthy EI provide a stable base for managing conflict.

Engaging constructively

Conflict Dynamics Model  Conflict Dynamics Profile @ Talent ToolsCreating and maintaining the right climate can not be accomplished unless team members choose to communicate in constructive ways. All too often when confronted with conflict, team members behave or respond in destructive ways. Often destructive behaviors take the form of fight or flight responses. Some of the most common destructive types of responses include:

  • Winning at all costs – attempting to get “your way” no matter what.
  • Avoiding – withdrawing from the conflict and your conflict partner.
  • Demeaning others – devaluing others or using sarcastic language.
  • Retaliating – actively or passively trying to “get even.”
  • Yielding – giving in to your conflict partner.
  • Hiding emotions – concealing one's true feelings.

Instead of engaging in these types of destructive behaviors, team members can choose to respond in more constructive ways. Admittedly, in the heat of the moment, this may not be an easy task. We suggest approaches that enable participants in conflict to cool down, slow down and engage constructively. Perhaps even more importantly, constructive responses provide an opportunity to take advantage of the differences involved in the conflict. Several constructive communication approaches and tactics are described below:

  • Improved self awareness – For many people, conflict seems to spiral out of control in an instant. The speed and force with which conflict arises can be alarming. Taking time to consider the kinds of situations that “set you off” or push your “hot buttons” is a great way to improve your readiness for conflict. When you are more mindful of your typical reactions, it's easier to recognize your emotions earlier during conflict. Such awareness enables you to cool down.
  • Delay responding and increase reflective thinking – Taking a brief time out when you realize the urge to respond destructively is a great tactic to help defuse the process. We recommend having a contingency plan consisting of a simple phrase to pause the heated dialogue. For instance, “Can we take a quick break? I really want to give this my best thinking and want to take a moment to collect my thoughts. Thanks.” Even a brief pause provides an opportunity to consider, reflect, and calm down.
  • Perspective taking – This is perhaps the single most powerful and effective tool for engaging conflict constructively. When you are able to demonstrate to your conflict partner that you comprehend their view, respect their position, and have empathy and regard for their feelings and values, despite seeing things differently, incredible progress is possible. Most conflicts become more volatile and intense with the failure to acknowledge differences constructively. Perspective taking shows understanding of the interests and emotions of one's conflict partner. Simply put, when done well, perspective taking is disarming because it demonstrates a willingness to consider the views, positions and feelings of others. A good way to begin includes a comment such as, “Wow, you see it much differently than I do. Can you tell me more?”

That's why it's called disruptive innovationConflict Dynamics profile @ Talent Tools

There is no question that teams must embrace methods and approaches to resolve the conflicts that most assuredly will arise when addressing business challenges. More importantly though, teams must realize the potential inherent in conflict and capitalize on it. Diversity of ideas among team members is natural and necessary. Differences of opinion are strengths. Disagreements may signal the emergence of innovative, novel concepts as yet unrealized. When addressed competently, conflict becomes an advantage for teams as issues are examined thoughtfully, new approaches are considered, and opportunities are expanded.

Reference:  Journal: Strategy & Leadership, Volume: 37,Number: 1, Year: 2009, pp: 20-22

The Authors
Tim Flanagan, Director of custom programs at the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, a network association of the Center for Creative Leadership (

Craig Runde, Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College (, 2008)

For information about how the Conflict Dynamics Profile can improve productivity in your team, contact us by
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Author:Tim Flanagan, Director of custom programs at the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College,