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 / Third Quarter 1996 / Issue 4(originally published by Booz & Company)


Turning Conflict Into a Tool for Team Effectiveness

Judy, the marketing manager at a large pharmaceutical company, dropped her head in her hands in exasperation. As the leader of a cross-functional project management team, she was expected to get a new drug launched in six months. But she had no direct control over the other team members, all of whom had to commit their entire departments to meet the production deadlines.

These were reasonable people, Judy thought, recalling times she had worked with each of them, one-on-one. In a team setting, however, the dynamics changed and her colleagues unleashed their own agendas. They came from various disciplines within the company and had so many different perspectives and ideas about priorities and procedures that the team was quickly mired in conflict.

Judy was beginning to think that the team approach, which sounded so wonderful when the consultants presented it and which the company was now pushing, would never work in real life. Indeed, she didn't think that her angry and frustrated team would ever get that new drug launched.

As organizations increasingly turn to teams -- from top management committees to self-directed work groups -- the hope is that the new approach will improve productivity by increasing creativity, energy and performance. However, our mental picture of teamwork and what relationships between team members should be is unrealistic.

Often overlooked is that teams create a variety of problems, and that these problems are inextricably linked to the very benefits they are also likely to produce. For example, the members of a cross-functional team, such as Judy's group at the pharmaceutical company, have different information, ideas and perspectives about how the team should proceed, what the important issues are, how to solve problems and even what roles each member should play. Conflict is inevitable. But is it bad?

The answer is no. In fact, research demonstrates that conflict can be beneficial for the team. Often, the first reaction to conflict is to become angry or distressed and to try to eliminate the "problem." But a better reaction would be to more fully understand the issues that are causing the disagreements, minimize the liabilities that anger generally brings and use the conflict to the team's advantage.

How can this be done? By changing our assumptions about conflict in three ways.

First, we need to recognize that conflict arises naturally in teams. As noted, when team members meet, each brings a myriad of pre-existing perspectives, beliefs and knowledge. These differences are the reasons why the teams were put together in the first place. If everyone believes or knows the same thing, there would be no need for teams. Yet these very differences predispose teams toward conflict.

Second, we need to understand that conflict is not an isolated occurrence. Conflict occurs throughout team interactions in episodes that start with an expression of disagreement, and end when the team either resolves the issue or changes the subject. Conflict arises in one of two forms: task-oriented or people-oriented. Task-oriented conflict concerns the substance of the work, such as ideas or procedures. People-oriented conflict occurs with struggles for leadership, unequal workloads and personality differences. Both types of conflict can occur at the same time.

While either type can have a positive influence on team performance, task-oriented conflict offers the bigger payoff. Performance is what we typically think about when we consider effectiveness; it is the team's productive output in terms of decisions or solutions. Conflict in general forces members to address some of their assumptions and override their striving for premature unanimity, thus leading to better performance. Teams engaged in task-oriented conflict direct their actions toward their work; the conflict forces them to be concerned with task functions and related issues.

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