Boost your teams’ effectiveness by intelligently managing conflicts

Based on recent research, you will learn in this article when and why conflicts in teams are potentially beneficial or detrimental and how you can use this knowledge to improve the effectiveness of teams in your organization.

Why is teamwork important anyway?

Due to developments like globalization and the technological progress, today’s companies are operating in an increasingly competitive environment. Therefore, to survive and to strive, companies need to be more flexible and innovative and act quicker than their competitors. Organizing work in teams is a widely applied response to these increased environmental challenges. In fact, teamwork has a great potential for increasing flexibility, innovativeness and consequently organizational performance. However, only functional, effective teams can produce the desired results. Malfunctioning and ineffective teams, on the other hand, can produce a series of problems for your company. Team conflict is one of the central factors that determine team effectiveness.

What is the role of conflict in teamwork?

Before we can understand the research findings on this topic, we need to define some concepts: Conflict can be categorized into task and relationship conflict. According to Pluut and Curşeu (2013), task conflict is present if group members express different viewpoints on how to accomplish a task, while relationship conflict is characterized by interpersonal frictions and incompatibilities (e. g. hostilities). Regarding team effectiveness, we can distinguish between hard and soft outcomes of teamwork. Hard outcomes are for example team performance while soft ones are satisfaction or team commitment.

During the last two decades, scientists have produced a vast amount of theory and research on the relationship between team conflict and team effectiveness. Some argued that conflict is generally detrimental, others emphasized its possible benefits, while a third group claimed that it is only beneficial in certain circumstances. Luckily, we have access to a comprehensive research work by De Wit, Greer and Jehn (2012) that summarizes the results of 116 empirical studies (covering 8.800 teams) on this topic:

They found that both task and relationship conflict are negatively related to soft team outcomes (e. g. satisfaction). This makes sense as people usually experience frustration and dissatisfaction in situations of disagreement and questioning. Moreover, they found that relationship conflict was also negatively related to hard team outcomes (e. g. performance). The reasons for this are that relationship conflict decreases the openness to ideas of colleagues and consumes time and resources that can then not be dedicated to solving the task at hand. However, De Witt and colleagues could neither find a negative nor a positive overall relation between task conflict and hard team outcomes. In fact, task conflict could improve hard team outcomes as it leads to a critical evaluation of ideas and, consequently, to higher innovativeness and performance. Instead, the research found that task conflict can be both detrimental or beneficial depending on certain conditions.

What are these conditions for a productive task conflict?

Task conflict was only beneficial for hard team outcomes in the absence of relationship conflict (e. g. De Wit, Jehn & Scheepers, 2013). The negative consequences of relationship conflict (e. g. negative emotions, hostilities) could make it impossible for teams to soberly discuss and, hence, profit from task disagreements.

Furthermore, the type of task the team had to perform was an important determinant of the relation between task conflict and performance (Jehn, 1995). Task disagreements were detrimental for teams performing routine tasks (e. g. following a well-established process), while they were beneficial for teams working on non-routine tasks (e. g. innovative, creative, new tasks). Simple, non-routine tasks often require the team to follow standardized procedures which renders disagreements and arguments more interruptive than useful. However, for solving new, non-routine tasks discussing, considering different perspectives and exploring alternative paths seems essential.

Finally, the intensity of the task conflict experienced by the team played an important role. Both low and high levels of task conflict harmed and moderate levels boosted team innovativeness (De Dreu, 2006). Relatively low levels of task conflict might not lead to a sufficient amount of discussion and critical evaluation. Too high levels of task conflict, on the other hand, might prevent the team from progressing as there is too much questioning and dispute.

Takeaways for your practice

You can use this knowledge to improve the effectiveness of teams working in your organization: First, as relationship conflicts are generally detrimental, they should be prevented or resolved whenever possible. This can be achieved by facilitating trust, respect and open communication in teams as well as by clearly defining roles and by applying appropriate conflict coping strategies. By taking this into account, a team can profit from a healthy level of task conflict without suffering detrimental relationship conflict.

Second, you should consider that too low and too high levels of task conflict can be both counterproductive. Hence, it is advisable to facilitate a moderate level of task conflict in teams. If, for example, one of your R&D teams is not as innovative as expected and demonstrates low levels of conflict, you might boost team performance by fostering task conflict (e. g. by encouraging critical thinking and systematic questioning or designating a devil’s advocate).

Finally, you should consider the type of task a team is working on. Any kind of conflict is potentially harmful for teams performing routine tasks while teams performing non-routine tasks (e. g. R&D teams) might benefit from task conflict.

Considering these recommendations will enable your organization to better reap the various benefits of well-functioning, productive teamwork – a prerequisite for striving in today’s economic environment. Thereby, it will also contribute to strengthening the position of HR as a competent, strategic partner in your organization.

What about you? What are your experiences with conflict and team effectiveness? Let us know in the comment section below.

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De Dreu, C. K. (2006). When too little or too much hurts: Evidence for a curvilinear relationship between task conflict and innovation in teams. Journal of Management, 32(1), 83-107.

De Wit, F. R., Greer, L. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2012). The paradox of intragroup conflict: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 360.

De Wit, F. R., Jehn, K. A., & Scheepers, D. (2013). Task conflict, information processing, and decision-making: The damaging effect of relationship conflict. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122(2), 177-189.

Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative science quarterly, 40, 256-282.

Pluut, H., & Curşeu, P. L. (2013). Perceptions of intragroup conflict: The effect of coping strategies on conflict transformation and escalation. Group Processes & Intergroup Re-lations, 16(4), 412-425.

Shaw, J. D., Zhu, J., Duffy, M. K., Scott, K. L., Shih, H. A., & Susanto, E. (2011). A contingency model of conflict and team effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 391-400.

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