John Milsom | 8 February 2019
I've been reviewing the research that sits beneath the development of teams lately and recently came across this article by Simons and Peterson of Cornell University. This study is focused on pin-pointing the reason why both successful and unsuccessful leadership teams highlight "Conflict" as the basis of their high or low performance.
In other words, the authors were trying to explain how it is that successful leadership teams tell stories of fierce debate leading to the development of brilliant solutions, while unsuccessful management teams tell stories of the same fierce debate preventing decisions being made and creating divisions that undermine their efforts. Their research findings are clear, and worth keeping in mind by anyone looking to build a high performing leadership team.
Within their research Simons and Peterson differentiated between 'Task Conflict' and 'Relationship Conflict'. The former relates to disagreements about tasks, issues and problems that teams face. The latter relates to disagreements based on interpersonal incompatibility, and typically includes tension, annoyance, and animosity among group members.
Previous research had shown some contradictory results about the way these different types of conflict impact on team performance. Although some studies showed that Task Conflict enhanced team performance and Relationship Conflict reduced team performance, other studies had found the two forms of conflict to be highly correlated, with one leading to another. This doesn't make sense without there being some mitigating factor. It also doesn’t help leaders to build teams in a way that capitalises on the positives of conflict without experiencing the negatives.
Through a rigorous and statistically robust study of over 70 similar organisations their results revealed three factors that prevent healthy disagreement about tasks from leading to the kind of unhealthy interpersonal conflict that has the potential to derail teams. The three factors they identified were:
- High levels of Trust between team members.
- Structured processes that provide a safe and controlled context for differences of opinion to be aired, and then decisions to be reached quickly.
- Clear behaviours that exclude "loudness" (i.e. raw aggression) within teams.
Of these three factors, it is the first, the development of high levels of interpersonal trust between team members, that was found to be most powerful, and the most important factor in supporting the performance of teams. From a statistical point of view, this finding was highly significant (p < 0.001).
The implication: If you want to build a high performing team, then stimulate conflict about tasks and problems whilst mitigating the risks of disagreements becoming personal by building trust.
Leaders should also look to provide structure that allows issues to be explored in an objective and constructive way that doesn’t allow individuals to derail or prolong the conversation, whilst also take steps to ensure team members' behaviour does not become disrespectful.