Using Productive Conflict to Improve Your Team's Success

Document created by 1049487 on May 12, 2015Last modified by 1002028 on Jun 28, 2015
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Tom Sheehan.pngConflict gets a bad rap. When we hear the word conflict, we almost always associate it with something negative. However, the reality is that all great relationships require productive conflict to in order to grow. At work, fear of conflict can quickly derail a team’s effectiveness (for more information read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni).


Let’s start by distinguishing between destructive conflict and productive conflict.


Destructive conflict occurs when co-workers engage in 'in-fighting' and interpersonal politics. Destructive conflict typically involves personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks. Another likely outcome of destructive conflict involves people ‘clamming up’, afraid to offer their opinions for fear of backlash.


Productive conflict helps individuals and teams to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time. Productive conflict occurs when people feel free to debate the merits of their views, sometimes in a heated fashion, but emerge with no hard feelings or collateral damage. In order to fully grasp how conflict may be limiting your team’s success, you need to assess two areas:


  1. Team Effectiveness – a team effectiveness survey is a proven tool that helps diagnose the root causes of a team’s dysfunctions…including how conflict is handled.
  2. Conflict Mode- the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument is a simple tool that allows individuals to identify their conflict style. Knowing your conflict style and the styles of others on the team gives you the opportunity to find common ground. In short, self-awareness of your style will allow you to vary your approach based upon the situation.


There are five Conflict Styles in the Thomas-Kilman model. The key is that no none style is inherently better than another.


Here is a quick look at each Conflict Style:



Competing is a power-oriented mode in which an individual pursues their goals at the other person’s expense. Competing uses whatever power that seems appropriate to win (i.e. ability to argue, rank, forcefulness).



Accommodating is the opposite of competing. Accommodation takes place when a person neglects their concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person. This may be selfless generosity or simply yielding to another’s point of view.



Avoiding is when a person does not immediately pursue their concerns or those of the other person. Avoiding simply does not address the conflict. In some cases, the person is looking to postpone the issue to a later time. In other cases, the ‘avoider’ is simply withdrawing from a threatening situation or conversation.



Collaborating is the opposite of avoiding. As it implies, the collaborator works with the other person to find a solution that works for both parties. This is not as simple as it sounds. Remember this is happening in the course of a conflict so you are dealing with your emotions and passions as well the other person’s style.



Compromising falls in the middle ground between competing and accommodating, giving up more than competing but less than accommodating. Compromising might mean splitting the difference to come to an expedient, mutually acceptable solution.



The harmful effects of destructive conflict can wreak havoc on a team’s ability to produce. Equally damaging to a team’s effectiveness is the hidden fear of conflict. Take time to understand how conflict is impacting your team and your organization. Finally, through increased self-awareness and thoughtful action, you can transition from destructive conflict to productive conflict.