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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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A tournamentQuestioning Questions
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
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Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
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When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersOvertalking: Part II
Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it happens, what can we do about it?
Henny Youngman in 1957Quips That Work at Work: Part I
Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

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