How conflict can actually be good for teamwork

How conflict can actually be good for teamwork

Teamwork plays an important role in the success of a company as well as development of every employee. So we are encouraged to work well together and support each other as and when required. The top management especially takes efforts to make sure about this.


However, it is high time we let go of idealized depictions of teamwork! Whenever there are sessions about why teamwork is important and how to develop it, we are invariably shown images of employees placing their hands one on top of the other to show consensus, or of sports where all players work in sync to achieve their goal, etc.


Teamwork doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to agree with each other on every single thing. On the contrary, if they do so, it means that either the idea is absolutely perfect or that some members are avoiding sharing their honest opinion to avoid conflict. Most of the times, it is the latter that holds true.


Typically, conflicts within any team are viewed negatively. It gives out the impression that these team members are not working in collaboration. Their manager will probably try to ensure that such incidents do not occur, one way or the other.


Although, conflict is not always destructive; it can very well help a team become even more productive!


We have long been preached that we need to work in collaboration with our colleagues. Conflicts need to be avoided at all times as they are said to disrupt productivity and reduce team morale. The HR department especially sees to it that such incidents do not take place in the organisation. The intent behind most of the HR initiatives or Team development games is to encourage everyone to work in harmony.


However, that does not hold true for every scenario. Some times we may actually need conflict. If you talk about brainstorming, it is not about peacefully discussing ideas. The entire team needs to come up with ideas and constructively argue about the pros and cons of each idea before finalizing one. Agreed, at times the discussion may heat up as some individuals stick to their beliefs and oppose other ideas vehemently.


How to foster better teamwork by leveraging conflict?

Can one team alone decide what are the best possible features for a product. The research that Marketing team conducts may have found that prospects want feature A in that product. On the other hand, Sales team may have experienced that customers always seem to ask for feature B in the product. Thus, instead of agreeing to any one team’s assertion, it is recommended that both the teams have a healthy conflict to resolve which feature can truly augment the product. They could even arrive at a decision to either include both the features in the product or create two variants of the product with either feature.


How agile teams encourage conflict – The storming stage

In a blog about how to build agile teams, we have described Bruce Tuckman’s 5 stages of team development. In this process, the second stage is known as The Storming stage where team members are encouraged to brainstorm ideas about the best ways to perform their roles and responsibilities. Their discussion is meant to challenge old methods of working and replace them.


Everyone listens to each other’s ideas and wherever there is a clash of perspectives, they challenge that idea. Here, individuals are advised to be patient and considerate towards the view of their team members. Eventually, they are able to come up with the best alternatives to increase efficiency within the organisation. (Read more about other stages of agile team development.)


Conflicts, if not managed, can quickly get messy and out of hands. You don’t want your team members to start attacking each other over who is right and who is wrong. It could not only lead to an increase in resentment but also lower everyone’s productivity.


Set some ground rules 


Identify with the overall team goal:

Every individual’s job responsibilities are typically tied in with the overall team goals. It helps to remind them that the outcome of their conflict should be to improve the efficiency of the team so that everyone collectively achieves their goals. It is always good to see the larger picture and how your efforts and ideas are tied in with it.


Value individual expertise:

Team members each have a unique set of skills and expertise. Thus, each one may have a different perspective for solving a problem. It is recommended that before dismissing any idea, carefully try to understand individual opinion from their point of view. It may actually be a better solution compared to others.


Never make it personal:

The purpose of a conflict is not to attack or disparage someone. When you make it personal, it is obviously going to distract you from the real issues. Subsequently, you simply end up alienating the individual. Conflict should be constructive and strictly restricted to objective discussions.


Importance of a psychologically safe environment:

And lastly, it is very important to have a psychologically safe environment in the organisation. Only in such an environment will your employees be able to voice their opinions without any fear of retribution.


Thus, while teamwork is important for the success of an organisation, constructive conflict is equally important for any real progress to be made.