When conflict works to your advantage

Here’s how to use disputes between team members to drive group performance

Here is how to use disputes between team members to drive group performance 1140x346

In 30 seconds:

  • Conflict is uniform in structure and characteristics, whatever the demographics, organisation or group
  • Disputes between two team members, with the rest as adjudicators, creates a dynamic that drives performance positively
  • Team leaders should foster reasonable disagreement between two individuals in a context of group neutrality
  • Leaders need to find the right balance – too much conflict between team members is counter-productive


  • Whole group in conflict = poor performance outcomes

  • Two individuals in conflict, rest of group looking on = positive performance outcomes.
  • Warring factions in conflict = poor performance outcomes
  • One individual in conflict with group = average-to-poor performance outcomes

Diversity always has the potential to improve business. When you bring different perspectives and points of view together, you can unlock the potential to solve bigger, more important questions.

Of course, it’s also true that the more perspectives you have, the more conflict there is likely to be. We see this in every group, in every team and every organisation, and we see it all the time. Wherever people think differently about an issue, conflict is inevitable.

For team leaders this is a conundrum: how do you leverage all the good stuff, such as the potential for learning that comes from diversity, while also managing the counterproductive and unhelpful trade-offs that can ensue from conflict?

Good vs bad conflict

  • Task conflict (disagreement that is cognitive or informational) = conflict with the potential to create positive outcomes if managed well.
  • Relationship conflict (disagreement that is affective or interpersonal) = conflict associated with negative outcomes.

Together with colleagues from the universities of Minnesota, Washington Bothell and Northern Illinois, I have been looking at the structure of group conflicts to get a better understanding of how they originate, how they evolve and how they impact performance. We know from the literature that conflict can take different forms in teams. It can be dyadic (that is to say, a dispute between two individuals within the group). Conflict can also manifest in the form of one “bad apple” – a single (usually toxic) individual who unsettles the group – or “bad blood”, where you have warring sub-groups or factions. It can even be a whole-group dynamic, where everyone in the team ends up embroiled in a dispute, each advancing their own perspective in opposition to the rest.

To unpack all this and see what’s really happening under the hood, we ran three large-scale studies using different demographic groups and types of organisation. This entailed comprehensively surveying undergraduates at a major public university in the US, a number of executives enrolled on a one-month executive management course in the UK, and more than 80 individual employee teams in a large Chinese manufacturing organisation. We asked them to tell us about the conflicts they experienced, who was involved, what happened over time and how they affected team outcomes.

What we found is as surprising as it is significant: conflict is uniform – both in structure and characteristics – whatever the demographics, organisation or group.

‘The trick is to find the sweet spot: just enough conflict to unearth the big issues, but not so much that you end up getting stuck’

The results are the same: whole-group conflict is rare; bad apples surface and bad blood happens from time to time, but the overwhelming majority of group conflicts are dyadic. More than 50% of all group conflicts take the form of two individuals at loggerheads, while the rest of the group remain onlookers or adjudicators.

And that’s not all. We also find that conflict tends to be sticky. While conflicts don’t always escalate in size or intensity, they do have a tendency to hang around in organisations, resurfacing even after they have officially been resolved.

So, what does this mean for businesses?

Perhaps most surprising and significant among our findings is the discovery that none of this is bad news – quite the opposite, in fact.

Why one against one equals success

Let’s assume that some conflict is good for business. Without a degree of dissent or debate it’s hard to really explore all the dimensions of a problem. The trick is to find the sweet spot: just enough conflict to unearth the big issues, but not so much that you end up getting stuck.

What we find in our studies is that this sweet spot occurs naturally when conflict is dyadic in nature.

Looking at grade outcomes among the students and executives and hard performance data from the Chinese manufacturing teams, the impact is clear: disputes between two team members, with the rest as adjudicators, creates a dynamic that positively drives performance.

It’s just as important to note that this effect doesn’t occur in the other conflict structures we observe. We don’t see this with whole-group disputes, single bad apples or warring factions. The magic seems to happen mostly when you have two people arguing the score while the others listen, evaluate, ask questions or mediate and attempt to figure out who’s right and what works.

So, what’s going on? It seems that when disagreement happens between two individuals it can create a space for others who are not invested in the conflict to actively listen, learn and evaluate the pros and cons of both sides, weighing up the arguments before making the call.

When everyone is caught up in the conflict or entrenched factions emerge, the focus shifts from listening and learning to forcing the win. Similarly, when a lone individual takes on the group, too often there is limited space for listening and learning to happen, however compelling their argument may be.

There is a parallel here with the dynamics at play in political elections. Opposing sides might look to shore up their base by advancing extreme or partisan arguments in the hope of a win. But elections are not usually decided by the left or the right. They are decisively won by reaching the middle ground – the undecided voters who are not committed to either side, but who are open to cogent, well-reasoned argument.

Dyadic conflict in the group creates an opportunity for learning to emerge. This is because research shows that when people are exposed to different points of view it causes them to think divergently, and that increases their capacity and opens them to change. The magic happens when you have rational and reasonable disagreement aired between two individuals in a context of group neutrality – and an openness to information and learning and to moving forward with the best decision.

Fan the fire – but not too much

So, should savvy leaders manufacture conflict between two team members with the aim of unlocking learning? Tempting as this is, it doesn’t work in reality. Studies show that artificial conflict or playing devil’s advocate might feel good as a process but it doesn’t produce the same psychological effect as listening to genuinely different points of view; nor does it translate into better decisions.

A far better strategy is to bring the issue to the table, encourage discussion and allow the differences to emerge. Because, as our studies show, leaders already have the keys they need to drive constructive, positive conflict. We’ve seen that the most prevalent form of group debate is dyadic in structure, so it’s more a question of leveraging what already exists.

How you leverage it is another question. Conflict is like fire. Fan it moderately, with care and attention, and you create a nice campfire. You can cook on it and it keeps you warm. Encourage it excessively and you end up with a conflagration. The entire forest can go up and you end up running for your life.

Your job as a team leader is learning how to fan dyadic conflict productively but not too much; to build diversity into your team, to nurture difference and enable constructive conflict – to set the culture, the tone and the boundaries and, perhaps most importantly, to understand what the evolution of a discussion should look like.

Conflicts are inevitable but, managed with care and foresight, they are also a key predictor of successful outcomes for you and your team.


Randall S Peterson is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School


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