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Yes, conflict can positively impact team performance. And yes, some level and some kind of conflict in your team is better than no conflict at all. However, the relationship between team conflict and team performance is a tricky one. To make matters worse, interpersonal conflict carries significant emotional cost, so there’s a natural tendency to avoid it.

Task vs relationship conflict

In principle, research into team conflict distinguishes task conflict (about work priorities, approaches, etc.) and relationship conflict (about personalities, styles, personal traits). Task conflict has been shown to have a positive impact on team performance. The argument goes that if you don’t fight at all about how to solve a task in your group, people are probably complacent and don’t care about the best solution. However, this relationship appears to be inverse U shaped with growing tension: whereas a total lack of task conflict makes the team members complacent, too much task conflict makes working together difficult and brings team problem solving to a halt.

This is because very intense task conflicts easily become personal. When this happens, task conflict turns into relationship conflict. People turn from fighting a task-related question to fighting each other. With the consequences mentioned above. People become so affected that the original issue loses its relevance – and team performance suffers.

Keeping tensions in your team on the right level

How to productively fight over best solutions and approaches while avoiding damage to personal relationships?

We suggest to take both a proactive and reactive stance towards it.

Being proactive means having a conflict management approach in place for your team, for example by defining ground rules. You may train your team to sense conflict and frame it in a right way. You may work to relate a conflict to your team’s purpose and goals and make them a reference in the debate. You may define criteria that help to keep a debate focused on tasks. You may proactively support building relationships within your team (a function not least of team size and team communications). And you may raise awareness of conflict dynamics and the differences of task and relationship conflict.  

Being reactive means doing something about it once conflicts arise (in contrast to ignoring it). There are proven behaviors, practices and tactics that help keep conflict healthy. Some of them are about organizing and agenda setting – e.g. finding the right setting or meeting or having a “referee” in place. Others are about self-management – the individual reflection and framing of your own vs. other viewpoints. And yet another category of practices is about leading conversations and the relationships on the basis of which those conversations are being led.

It takes attentive (and shared) leadership to turn tensions into an opportunity of enhanced team performance. Check out our Team Kit to learn more about conflict in teams and how to make the best of it.