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The Behavioral Dynamics Behind Team Conflict

If you work in an organization, chances are that your work is being done by teams—research from the Center for Creative Leadership puts it at 91% of organizations. These teams are the task forces responsible for developing solutions, creating processes, and generating innovation. In a very real sense, the daily and long-term effectiveness of work teams directly relates to the ability of an organization to be competitive and build for the future.

In our previous blog [1], we spoke on the benefits of teams that harnessed diversity on a cognitive level—via thinking preferences and behavioral characteristics [2]. In our work, we’ve seen this kind of diversity make stronger teams that, in turn, created the outputs so critical for organizational success—innovation, lean processes, balanced solutions, and collaborative, trusting relationships.

However, as in any endeavor that brings complex people and ideas together, cognitive diversity has its challenges. With different minds focused on high-performance objectives, the possibility of team collaboration becoming team conflict [3] is ever present.

Team conflict is often inevitable, but the key is making conflict impersonal and directly tied to solutions. Resolving conflict in the productive debate of ideas and the advancement of better ideas through differences of opinion can take a team from good to great (to borrow a phrase). It’s not a new idea—this article from The Management Exchange [4]explores the ways both team conflict and collaboration interact to spur great ideas—but in practice “good conflict” is incredibly difficult and wrought with potential pitfalls.

If good conflict spurs debate and builds upon ideas, conflict without collaboration [5] induces questioning on a personal level and erodes trust. Worse still, this type of situation may lead to broader consequences for potentially high-productive team members. Think about your soft-spoken and more amiable individuals; without trust, dialogue, and diverse ideas just sound like arguments. These employees could shut down completely and tune out, their valuable ideas silenced as well.

It’s often the behaviors of a group that can lead cognitively diverse teams to break down. While thinking styles are very different, broad behavioral differences are what team members see and experience.

Are your more outspoken and driving team members alienating those on the opposite end of the Expressiveness and Assertiveness spectrums? These individuals are very ready to make their opinion known and quick to increase the energy of their debate.

On the other hand, do your quieter employees stifle debate and look too much for consensus?

In any sort of team conflict, innovation, team dynamics [6], and team goals all suffer. The goal for team leaders is then to create awareness within the team of the behavioral styles and comfort zones of all team members.

Take a look at these real-world tips for creating awareness about behavioral tendencies in order to stimulate diverse ideas and amplify productive team conflict.

Through the understanding of those they work with, teams can make cognitive diversity [8] a powerful driver for performance and even turn conflict into an asset to spur their organization forward.