Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 24;   June 17, 2009: Teamwork Myths: Conflict

Teamwork Myths: Conflict

by

For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights

James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The debates leading to the ratification of the United States Constitution emphasized two fundamental perspectives. The Federalists advocated adoption of the draft document in toto. The Anti-Federalists disagreed — they wanted changes that specified the rights of citizens, and reserved to citizens all rights not specifically granted to the government. Madison was a leading Anti-Federalist. He formulated a set of twelve amendments limiting the rights of the government. After constitutional ratification, the First Congress adopted ten of these. An eleventh was ratified in 1992. The first ten, now called the Bill of Rights, include the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. They are now so central that to many, they are the most important part of the Constitution. Clearly the conflict between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was constructive — it produced a superior result. Photo of a painting of Madison ca. 1821 by Gilbert Stuart, oil on wood. The painting is at the National Gallery of Art.

The first in this series about teamwork myths explored erroneous beliefs about forming teams. In this second installment, we examine three myths about team conflict.

Team cohesion is determined by personal chemistry
Some believe that all members of high performance teams like each other. They attribute interpersonal trouble on teams to so-called "personality clashes." They believe that team troubles are always due to misbehavior by individual team members. This conveniently exonerates everyone and everything else, including policy, customers, layoffs, pressure, culture, and management.
This erroneous belief is often used to justify individual-oriented corrective actions that include reassignment, discipline, and termination, but when the causes of poor team cohesion aren't personal, these actions are ineffective. Moreover, in misguided efforts to form high performance teams, we sometimes staff teams according to personal chemistry rather than knowledge, skill, or capability.
When team members believe that chemistry drives cohesion, toxic conflicts erupt unnecessarily, because members believe that honest differences are driven not by professional judgments but by personal agendas. Adherence to the myth validates the myth.
Conflict undermines performance
Many believe that conflict is always bad and destructive, that disagreements always threaten team goals, and that those who disagree aren't team players. To disagree is to be disagreeable. This is a particularly destructive myth.
Many don't know how to disagree agreeably, or how to engage in substantive debate while avoiding personal attacks. Many experience disagreement as personal attack. For all these people, disagreement often leads to toxic conflict. This might explain some of the popularity of this myth.
If disagreement Some attribute interpersonal
trouble on teams to
so-called "personality
clashes," which conveniently
exonerates everyone and
everything but the clashers
is disallowed, how can we ever perfect group decisions? All positions would remain unquestioned until their advocates moved on. Indeed, this is what happens in dictatorships — and in groups that don't tolerate disagreement.
Conflict usually entails disagreement, but conflict can be either destructive or constructive. Constructive conflict is essential to high performance.
Team trouble is always due to bad apples
The bad-apple myth holds that team trouble is always due to a few "bad apples," and after we find the bad apples, and eliminate them or modify their behavior, the trouble ends. Rarely does this actually work. At best, everyone else learns that quiet compliance and currying favor is the safest course. High performance remains elusive.
Usually, the people we identify as bad apples are just the visible manifestation of systemic problems. If that's the case, eliminating the bad apples just drives the symptoms underground. To achieve high performance we must actually address problems, and that requires people who are willing to speak up. If we teach the team that speaking up is dangerous, we close off the only path to achieving high performance. You can't fix what you can't talk about.

Some readers no doubt subscribe to one or more of what I am here calling myths. I guess, for now, we'll have to agree to disagree. First in this series   Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog  Next Issue

For more teamwork myths, see "Teamwork Myths: Formation," Point Lookout for May 27, 2009, and "Teamwork Myths: I vs. We," Point Lookout for July 1, 2009.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.

See also Conflict Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

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When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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