My friend Liz Kislik sent me a link to an article she knew I’d find interesting. The article referenced some new research about team conflict, teasing the idea that there’s a lot less actual team conflict than we might think. The brief was enough to convince me to settle in and read the full 41-page original article by Shah, et al., in Administrative Sciences Quarterly. (I don’t recommend this unless you really, really like reading academic papers.)

The article has lots of interesting content, including both the origins (does the conflict initiate from one individual, a dyad, a sub-group, or from the whole team) and the trajectories (i.e., do they stay the same over time, shrink to fewer combatants, or become contagious and infect the whole team) of team conflicts. It will take me a few more readings and several trips down the citation rabbit hole to understand all of what the article has to offer…stay tuned for more. But for today, I wanted to key in on a couple of important points.

  1. A conflict that was generated by a single individual or a pair of team members positively predicted team performance over multiple different studies.Once more… Conflict about the task at hand makes teams more effective. Put another way… Conflict is good for you.
  2. That only holds if the conflict stems from what they referred to as “principled dissenters” and not from “bad apples.”

Conflict Improves Performance

Let’s get really specific. Yes, conflict can improve your team’s performance. If…

  • The conflict is focused on the task, not on relationships or inter-personal issues.
  • The conflict is contained and involves productive tension from a small number of team members, rather than the whole team being so misaligned that there’s no basis for resolution.
  • The individual who initiates the conflict is doing so as a principled dissenter to “push teams to think critically, explore options, or evaluate different perspectives,” and is not a bad apple who “chronically display(s) behaviors that asymmetrically impair group functioning.” Put more simply, the person is a devil’s advocate, not a jerk.

Bad Apples and Principled Dissenters

Now we have research evidence (from three different studies in both university and workplace settings) to reinforce that when you question your team’s decision making, add tension to the discussion, advocate for diverse points of view, that you are contributing to a high performing team, not detracting from one.

“When you question your team’s decision making, add tension to the discussion, advocate for diverse points of view, that you are contributing to a high performing team, not detracting from one.”

Before you go sending this article around as justification of your behavior to all those who called you “too blunt” or “combative” and “overly aggressive” on a 360 feedback at some point, let’s revisit the difference between the constructive versus the harmful versions of instigating conflict. The article uses the terms principled dissenters and bad apples, so I will too.

Principled Dissenters

To be a principled dissenter, do the following: (note: these suggestions are based on my own experiences of productive conflict and go beyond what’s included in the research.)

  • Question the quality or the interpretation of evidence
  • Propose alternatives when the team is converging too quickly
  • Spot assumptions and question under which circumstances they are legitimate
  • Advocate for stakeholders not being represented in the discussion
  • Translate your colleagues’ subjective opinions into objective language and see if their conclusions hold
  • Provoke deeper thinking with questions such as, “What scenario might cause you to change your opinion?”
  • Describe a trend that is changing in the external environment and ask how that shift might affect your plans
  • Ask team members to share the facts, emotions, and values that are weighing into their decision-making
  • Encourage the team to explore options they have been ignoring because of existing constraints
  • Anticipate implementation issues and ask team members to conduct a “pre-mortem

Each of these is an example of playing the role of a Devil’s Advocate. If you don’t know the origins of the term and how we’ve corrupted it, you might enjoy my post about it. You can read it here.

Bad Apples

It’s easy to slip from being a principled dissenter into being what Shah et. al. refer to as a “bad apple.” Avoid these bad apple behaviors that will make your team less successful:

  • Questioning an individual team member or their motives
  • Making broad, general statements without evidence or examples to back them up
  • Interrupting someone before they’ve been allowed to complete their thought
  • Dominating the discussion by talking significantly more than your fair share of the airtime
  • Focusing your dissent and disagreement on one team member more than others
  • Denying someone eye contact as a way of devaluing their contributions
  • Persisting with your dissent after the decision is made (See The Problem with Agreeing to Disagree)

It’s nice to have an emerging body of research on the origins, nature, and impact of conflict on teams. We’re getting more and more clear that conflict can be a very good thing and also benefitting from more precise prescriptions of what behaviors we should encourage and discourage. What would you add to the list of principled dissenter or bad apple behaviors?

Further Reading

Exercise: Fostering a Culture of Productive Conflict

Be a more effective devil’s advocate

Is it Manipulative to Use Productive Conflict Techniques?