Project management: How conflict can be used to improve team performance

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Forming, storming, norming and performing is a well-known team building process. But can we harness the disruptive power of conflict to produce better outcomes for our business?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. There are legitimate ways to use conflict.

The 4 types of conflict

We know from academic research that there exist four types of conflict;

  1. Conflict over Status
  2. Relationship conflict
  3. Process conflict, and
  4. Task conflict

Conflict type definitions

  • Conflict around ‘Status’ involve disputes around people’s relative position in the social hierarchy
  • Conflict around ‘Relationships’ are those personal tensions between staff
  • Conflict around ‘Process’ are those disagreements about the mechanics of task completion: something as simple as when to schedule meetings or how and when reporting is done
  • Conflict around ‘Tasks’ are the simplest to define. They’re disagreements about what constitutes the activities and content of a task

Lindred Leura Greer is an associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stanford University and has spent her academic life researching conflict in the work place.

The research Lindred and her colleagues have undertaken has revealed that ‘task’ conflicts can be beneficial to a team. It makes for very interesting reading for program and project managers.

That is, within the constraints of an open and safe environment, where people feel emotionally secure and have their status within the team recognized, ‘task’ conflicts have measurable beneficial effects on team performance and business outcomes.

Also, conflicts over process, if handled at the start of a project, also had a beneficial effect by the end of the project. However, the reverse is also true. Process conflicts not resolved at the start of the project indicated a more likely rise in ‘relationship’ and ‘status’ conflicts.

Research also shows that playing “devil’s advocate” by allowing opposing views (in a non-provocative, non-threatening manner) also had positive effects on team performance overall. Of course, managers need to be aware of each individual’s own personal conflict schema. For example, one individual may see a lively discussion where the other may see an intense disagreement.

And of course, arguments and conflict laden with emotion, invective, status or questions over power are never, ever beneficial.

So next time you move into conflict resolution mode, ask yourself – is this a task conflict? And if so, how could this benefit my project?

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