Successful teams have three things in common:


  1. They meet their performance goals.
  2. Their members feel satisfied that they are learning/benefiting from being a part of the team.
  3. The process the team uses to collaborate sets it up for future success[i].

Recent research, however, suggests that in as little as five weeks of working together, only about 25 percent of teams meet these criteria[ii]. The rest of the teams typically experience less-than-ideal processes and a decline in performance and/or satisfaction.

So what goes wrong? Most team members report that conflict among team members gets in the way of effective teamwork, and this conclusion is largely supported by academic research. The effect of conflict on teams is not always straightforward, however. Under the right conditions, for example, conflict can stimulate divergent thinking and lead to improved problem-solving. On the other hand, it also tends to increase defensiveness, distract members from effective problem-solving and generate interpersonal animosity. So what determines whether a team can harness the benefits and limit the liabilities of conflict?

More than a decade of research provides a clear answer: how team conflict is managed. Because conflict happens in all teams (even the most effective ones), the presence of conflict has little bearing on whether one team is more successful than another. The factor most important to team success is how teams handle conflict when it does arise — and there are clear and reliable patterns associated with (in)effective conflict management. These patterns center on a critical trade-off that teams implicitly or explicitly make when deciding how to deal with their conflict: the trade-off between getting work done and making individual members happy.

The most effective teams create strategies that do both, but the majority of teams sacrifice one or the other. For example, conflict gets in the way of effective work if the team is unable or unwilling to address the root cause of the conflict. Low-performing teams typically struggle with this (usually because people did not speak their minds) or are unwilling to address the problem (e.g., when there were politics around taking sides or people were just too fed up to even try). This ultimately hurts performance because the inhibiting factors of the conflict are never managed — that is, removed from the team’s process. In terms of individual satisfaction with the team, the distinguishing factor is how proactive versus reactive the team’s approach is to conflict management. Teams that are proactive in identifying conflicts and addressing them before they escalate have more satisfied members. Teams that operate in reactive mode, wherein conflicts take them by surprise or keep the team in constant firefighting mode, have less satisfied members. These trade-offs around performance and satisfaction are summarized in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Patterns in teams’ outcomes according to the processes they create to manage conflict.

  High/Improving Performance: Team is able and willing to identify and correct problems Low/Declining Performance: Team is unable or unwilling to identify and correct problems
High/Improving Satisfaction: Proactive conflict-resolution strategies planned to preempt negative effects of conflict Quadrant 1: The Ideal Team
These teams create processes to foresee or anticipate conflict, allowing the team to either quickly resolve or prevent the conflict from escalating when it does occur.
Quadrant 2: Feeling Good, Doing Bad
These teams create processes that are proactive about protecting relationships to the detriment of tackling the source of the problem. As a result, members feel valued and interactions tend to be pleasant, but the team is not willing to tackle difficult conflict in discussions and usually misses opportunities to leverage members’ unique expertise or viewpoints.
Low/Declining Satisfaction: Reactive resolution strategies applied in reaction to existing problems Quadrant 3: Recovering via Structure
These teams create processes that reflect learning from their conflicts. Their strategies tend to rely on rules and structured agreements to prevent a similar problem from happening again. This makes team members more reliable (it acts as a substitute for trust), but decreases satisfaction by constraining interactions.
Quadrant 4: Minimize Misery/Avoidant
These teams describe chaotic/trial-and-error processes that have no clear identification of the root cause of the conflict. Their overall orientation is typically to use strategies that move past (rather than address) the conflict.

It is probably safe to say that very few teams want to be in Quadrants 2 through 4. Teams land there because they do not successfully manage the tension between leveraging individuals’ strengths and addressing their complaints. Put another way, in conflict situations, there are competing interests: What is good for the team is not always what each individual wants or is willing to do. In general, higher-performing teams create conflict-resolution strategies that make it clear how individuals need to contribute to the team and how that contribution aligns with their interests, whereas lower-performing teams focus more on appeasing individuals and addressing idiosyncrasies.

We will next discuss unique differences in how teams in the four quadrants manage conflict. It is important to note that people tend to use the same words (e.g., discussion, compromise, consensus) to describe conflict-resolution strategies, but research has demonstrated that those words represent strikingly different processes, as summarized in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Summary of conflict-resolution strategies used by teams in each quadrant.

  High/Improving Performance: Conflict-resolution strategies focus on the group goal over specific individual complaints/quirks Low/Declining Performance: Conflict-resolution strategies focus on specific individuals’ complaints over the group goal
High/Improving Satisfaction: Proactive conflict-resolution strategies planned to preempt negative effects of conflict Quadrant 1: The Ideal Team
  • Work assignments based on skill and relevance to team performance
  • Forecasting scheduling and workload problems
  • Securing solid understanding behind compromises
  • Focusing on content over delivery style
Quadrant 2: Feeling Good, Doing Bad
  • Work assignments based on individual interest and/or on who volunteers·
  • In place of analysis, include all ideas
  • Strong focus on individuals’ goals, feelings, and needs versus how they can best contribute to team performance
Low/Declining Satisfaction: Reactive resolution strategies applied in reaction to existing problems Quadrant 3: Recovering via Structure
  • Work assignments by assigned team role or convenience (due to others’ uncompleted work)
  • Written or clearly articulated rules and consequences for not upholding expectations
  • Majority rule under time pressure
  • Putting disruptive members into a specific role
Quadrant 4: Minimize Misery/Avoidant
  • Work assignments to divide and conquer; avoid meetings and one another
  • Frustrated members avoid debate and choose the path of least resistance or the easiest solution
  • Put conflicting viewpoints to a majority vote
  • Trial and error to correct process

Quadrant 1: The Ideal Team

The teams in this quadrant orient themselves to resolve conflict using the principle of equity – each member is asked to contribute his or her fair share only in ways that serve the team. This means that not everyone equally gets what he or she wants, but members usually understand why team decisions are fair and equitable. The strategies unique to these teams include:

  • Having explicit discussions about what members want to do versus what the team needs each person to do: Quadrant 1 teams are the only teams that actually divide work based on expertise rather than personal interests, convenience or deadline emergencies.
  • Proactively forecasting preventable problems: Most teams have busy people on them, which means (even with the best forecasting) they occasionally will miss a deadline or need help. Ideal teams are disciplined about foreseeing periods of work overload for each member and identifying workflow bottlenecks in advance.
  • Taking time to discuss individuals’ compromises: The two practices above are often difficult because they require direct confrontation: telling a member he or she is not the best person for the job or selecting one person’s idea over another’s. The time spent to proactively discuss individual disappointments and to secure solid understanding behind compromises pays off in the long term.
  • During conflict, focusing on content over delivery: When these teams have unanticipated conflicts, they “fight” by focusing on the content of the complaint — not the delivery. They do not react to demands and sarcastic or condescending tones, and instead focus on uncovering the underlying causes of the conflict[iii].

Not using these techniques, in contract, can result in behavior that detracts from team performance and/or satisfaction, as seen in the other quadrants.

Quadrant 2: Feeling Good, Doing Bad

Teams in Quadrant 2 orient themselves to resolve conflict using the principle of equality — or giving equal weight to every individual and his/her interest. This focus on equality among individuals creates a team norm that values consensus and harmony at the cost of decision quality. For example, these teams consider themselves proactive because their discussions identify what it will take to keep each person positive and engaged in the team. This is indeed a good practice, but only when aligned with what the team is trying to achieve.

Quadrant 3: Recovering via Structure

Teams in Quadrant 3 orient themselves to resolve conflict with enforced equity. Unlike the teams in Quadrant 1, Quadrant 3 teams are more reactive in dealing with conflicts that have escalated and disrupted team progress. These teams quickly learn from and address their conflicts, which is why they are able to prevent problems from reoccurring. Having to retroactively fix team problems tends to decrease satisfaction because it places team members in the position of having to do more for the team than expected — or having to play a role they would not otherwise have to if other members had upheld their responsibilities.

Quadrant 4: Minimize Misery/Avoidant

Teams in this quadrant tend to have an unorganized or ad hoc approach to managing their conflict. They not only fail to balance individual versus team interests, they actually fail to address either one. Their strategies focus more on immediate complaints rather than underlying interests. For example, team members make the mistake of arguing about one another’s intentions rather than figuring out how to leverage strengths, they openly tell disruptive members to change a trait or habit rather than figuring out how to minimize a disruptive member’s effect on the team, and often get caught in a distracting negative spiral of interpersonal conflict rather than discussing how to accomplish the team goal.

Sustaining a high-performing, highly satisfied team takes a great deal of maintenance and awareness. Over the lifespan of a team, it is highly likely that it will cycle through several or all the quadrants. Understanding the effect that different orientations toward conflict-management strategies have on a team’s viability is important because it helps a team recognize where there are imbalances that create negative processes and interactions — and where to focus resources to prevent or reverse the negative effects.

This post is excerpted from Darden Professor Kristin Behfar’s technical note Conflict Management in Teams (Darden Business Publishing), prepared by Professor Behfar and Management Consultant Rebecca Goldberg (MBA ’03).

[i] J. Richard Hackman and Charles G. Morris, “Group Tasks, Group Interaction Process and Group Performance Effectiveness: A Review and Proposed Integration,” in Leonard Berkowitz, ed., Advance in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 8 (New York: Academic Press, 1975).

[ii] This article is a summary of the research presented by Kristin Behfar, Randall Peterson, Elizabeth Mannix and William Trochim, “The Critical Role of Conflict Resolution in Teams: A Close Look at the Links Between Conflict Type, Conflict Management Strategies and Team Outcomes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 93, No. 1 (2008).

[iii] This is a similar practice to that in research on negotiation as focusing on interests over positions (e.g., as described by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (New York: Penguin Group, 1981).