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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenbgRcwlUGJLQkqlrfner@ChacXIuuZhJzsUWEnrPMoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Union of South AfricaPeace's Pieces
Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
A New England stone wallHow to Misunderstand Somebody Else
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herdOvertalking: I
Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
The FBI wanted poster for Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian cyber criminalToxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks
In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog of covert attack tactics.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenVyipbDvRUrRUmALsner@ChacmVsUSvjXjDbyHxGQoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.