Team Conflict – Part 1
Our December article in GigaOm had a brief nod to the myth that conflict in teams is bad. In fact, practitioner experience and scholarly research agree that there are good forms of conflict and bad forms of conflict. The good conflict, often referred to as cognitive conflict, is the healthy debate that teams get into regarding what should be or why something should be done and involves a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Bad conflict, often referred to as affective conflict, is role based and often involves how to do something or who should be doing something. This of course isn’t to say that all discussions over roles are “bad”, but rather that lingering role based discussions that are perceived as political or territorial can be unhealthy for an organization if not handled properly.
Good, or cognitive conflict, helps teams open up the range of possibilities for action. Diverse perspectives and experiences work together to attack a problem or an opportunity from multiple angles. Brainstorming sessions and properly run post mortems are all examples of controlled cognitive conflict with the intent of generating a superior set of alternatives and actions. Team norms have been shown to have a positive effect on developing cognitive conflict; a culture of acceptance and respect for diverse opinions is more likely to generate more alternatives. Emotionally and socially intelligent leaders also may help create positive cognitive conflict within teams. But research shows us that cognitive conflict if left unresolved can escalate to affective (bad) conflict.
Bad (or affective) conflict results in physical and organizational trauma. Physically, it can leave us drained as the sympathetic nervous system (the same system partially involved in the fight or flight syndrome kicked off by the hypothalamus) releases the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase, and the adrenal cortex releases 30 different hormones to deal with threats. Over time, constant affective conflict leaves us drained. Organizationally, teams fight over ownership and approaches. Organizations become fractured, and scholarly research shows that the result is a limiting of our options from a tactical and strategic perspective. The fighting closes our minds to options, meaning we sub-optimize our potential results.
Why is all of this important? By understanding the sources and results of conflict, we as leaders can drive our teams to have healthy debates and we can quickly end value destroying affective conflict. Our job is to create a healthy environment suitable to the maximization of shareholder value. By creating an open, caring and respectful culture we can both maximize cognitive conflict and minimize affective conflict. By setting clear roles and responsibilities we can limit the sources of affective conflict. And by hiring a diverse group of people with complementary skills and perspectives we can minimize group think, maximize strategic options and grow quickly!