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

Teamwork Myths: Conflict

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016And on April 12: How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen? Available here and by RSS on April 12.

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