Team Conflict Can Be Healthy​

David Wright’s discussion in The Myths and Realities of Teamwork illustrates six common myths about teamwork as well as the reality.  One of these myths is that team conflict is unhealthy (Wright, 2013, p.13).  Conflict avoidance is a natural instinctive reaction, as is evidenced by the fight-or-flight instinct.  In the workplace, conflict is often avoided when people are either eager for approval or afraid to disappoint others (Hirsch, 2018).  The reality behind the myth is that conflict is often a healthy and important mechanism in a team. 

David Wright’s Six Myths of Teamwork 

There are six myths of teamwork, as presented by David Wright.  First, the myth that “teams are harmonious people who compromise their needs for the team” (Wright, 2013, p.13) indicates that people often think that teams do not have conflict, and everyone is self-sacrificial and led by groupthink rather than their own ideas.  Harmony is actually hard to maintain in a team, and there is usually a certain amount of conflict (The Five Myths of Teams, 2018). 

The idea that team conflict is unhealthy is another common myth (Wright, 2013, p.13), borne out of the human desire to avoid conflict (Hirsch, 2018).  Conflict is an important part of team dynamics and is necessary to problem solve and can also help work out negativity while moving the team forward (Wright, 2013, p.15). 

Wright tells us that it is a common myth to think that most people like teamwork (Wright, 2013, p.13).  Only about a third of people, according to Wright, enjoy teamwork (Wright 2013, p.16).  According to a study by the University of Phoenix, 85 percent of workers in the United States consider working in a team to be difficult (The Five Myths of Teams, 2018).  In other words, most people do not want to work in teams. 

The fourth myth that Wright presented is that teamwork is essential to business success (Wright, 2013, p.13).  Since teamwork is so effective, especially when applied appropriately with a diverse team which innovates and solves complex problems, the team concept is overapplied by many.  The reality of the situation is that, while teams are appropriate in complex situations, many tasks are simple or require rapid changes, which are more appropriate when tackled by individuals or silos rather than teams (Wright, 2013, p.18). 

One of Wright’s myths which is almost laughable is the idea that teams are easy to influence and manage (Wright, 2013, p.13).  The idea that teams are easy to manage possibly came from the idea that teams often self-govern.  Team leadership requires different skills and styles of leadership than solo leadership.  In teams, for instance, it is more appropriate to give control to the team and build diversity, rather than being authoritarian and seeking conformity and uniformity (Wright, 2013, p.20). 

Wright’s sixth myth is that senior managers encourage teamwork (Wright, 2013, p.13).  While managers often outwardly profess to wanting teamwork, they truly do not, because enabling teams requires giving over a portion of control to the team (Wright, 2013, p.20).  Senior managers are reluctant to give up that control.  Those senior managers need to reorient their management and leadership styles to accommodate for their teams, enabling their teams, and guiding them to certain goals while trusting them to collaborate and solve their problems (Wright, 2013, p.21) 

Team Conflict Can Be Healthy 

Conflict is naturally existing in human lives.  Team conflict can be organizational or intra-group and can be categorized into three types of conflict:  task conflict, relationship conflict, and process conflict (Tiefenbacher, 2020).  These three types of conflict occur in teams when teammates do not get along.  This may be due to different perspectives, values, and individual goals, but may also be rooted in personality conflicts or communication failures and misunderstandings (Managing Workplace Conflict, n.d.). 

David Wright’s myth that team conflict is unhealthy is rooted in the discomfort of conflict.  Most people fear conflict, so they avoid conflict and repress their anger and frustration (Campbell, 2014). Arlene Hirsch, psychologist and human resources author, writes that people ignore and deny the issue exists, change the subject and avoid the issue, or withdraw from the situation (Hirsch, 2018).  This avoidance only causes the situation to worsen (Campbell, 2014). 

In order to conquer these challenges around conflict avoidance, as Google as learned, it is best to create psychological safety by removing blame and punishment for mistakes, teaching the team how to give feedback and have confront difficult conversations, and treating everyone with respect.  Teaching people how to seek collaborate and create win-win solutions while looking at conflict as a positive way to grow is an important lesson in creating psychological safety (Hirsch, 2018). 

When people find psychological safety and embrace conflict, it enables adaptability and helps the team reach goals by getting through disagreements.  Healthy conflict increases commitment to the team as well as engagement and productivity.  When conflict is embraced, so is change.  Teams can then embrace change constructively and productively.  Lastly, out of conflict comes creativity, inspiration, and innovation (Campbell, 2014). 

Teaching conflict avoiders to see conflict as healthy and positive can be a challenge.  Psychological safety is the most important piece because keeps people from feeling the flight-or-flight instinctive response.  To show people that not all conflict is unhealthy, it is also important to train them on conflict resolution and the differences between good conflict and bad conflict.  Where good conflict can embrace growth, change, and new ideas, bad conflict is hurtful and blameful (Thompson, 2019).  Teaching those differences is useful in helping people understand the value of conflict in team dynamics. 

Conclusion 

Although Wright pointed out six common myths regarding teams, the strongest myth is the myth that coincides with human nature:  that team conflict is unhealthy.  Understanding that team conflict is healthy, and fostering an environment for productive conflict, takes work and training.  Training in conflict resolution, training in communication, training in team management, and training in creating psychological safety are key pieces to understanding that team conflict can be healthy.  

References 

Campbell, S. (2014, October 30). Conflict Among Team Members Can Lead to Better Results. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/238993 

Hirsch, A. (2018, September 12). Working with People Who Avoid Conflict. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/working-with-people-who-avoid-conflict.aspx 

Managing Workplace Conflict. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/managingworkplaceconflict.aspx 

Tiefenbacher, W. (2020, January 19). Team conflict: understanding types of conflict and how to manage them sustainably. https://www.ckju.net/en/dossier/team-conflict-understanding-types-conflict-and-how-manage-them-sustainably 

The 5 Myths of Teams. (2018, May 8). Retrieved from http://www.accurys.com/blog/2018/5/8/the-5-myths-of-teams 

Thompson, J. (2019, May 29). Does Conflict Contribute to Effective Decision-Making in the Workplace?  https://smallbusiness.chron.com/conflict-contribute-effective-decisionmaking-workplace-36195.html 

Wright, D. (2013). The Myths and Realities of Teamwork,1st ed.  Retrieved from https://bookboon.com/en/the-myths-and-realities-of-teamwork-ebook 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: