Don’t Normalize Conflict

By Andy Johnson

I’ve been thinking, writing and speaking about conflict in different contexts for about twenty years. Shortly after the release of my 2014 book that focused on conflict prevention, I was asked to address a lunchtime Rotary club meeting in my home town. I had prepared what I thought was a nice talk describing the way many of us avoid the topic of conflict (like we do taxes, death, and other depressing subjects). Thus, I was surprised when the audience overwhelmingly started telling me about the goodness of conflict. They had all been convinced that conflict, which we used to fear, was now our friend in the workplace. Conflict had been normalized. Because of this consensus worldview in the room, my analogy of treating conflict as something good being like the emperor’s invisible clothes didn’t go over very well. How did we get to this place where we are asked to normalize, befriend, and live with conflict in our workplace teams? A bit of history will help to explain.

Early conflict theorists saw conflict as detrimental to organizations and focused their attention on the prevention and resolution of conflict. Beginning in the early to mid-nineties, the alternative view of conflict was put forward, suggesting that conflict should be seen as beneficial to teams, at least under some circumstances, according to K. Jehn in a 1995 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. This new view of conflict as beneficial gained popularity through the inclusion of productive conflict as one of Lencioni’s five aspects of functional teams, as referenced in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. He actually stated the principle in reverse, claiming that one of the five dysfunctions of a team is the fear of conflict. Here’s how Lencioni framed the discussion:

How does a team go about developing the ability and willingness to engage in healthy conflict? The first step is acknowledging that conflict is productive, and that many teams have tendency to avoid it (p. 203).

Many popular writers followed suit, explaining the goodness of conflict and the reason we didn’t need to fear it but the absence of it. It must have been this view that prevailed in the room that day at the Rotary Club meeting. I was out of touch, promoting an old view of conflict that had been rejected for a more progressive view.

Being aware of this popular view and yet convinced that conflict as most of us experience it is destructive and to be eliminated or prevented, I wrote in 2014 in my book Pushing Back Entropy about the possibility of the new view of conflict as being emperor’s clothes:

Our old clothes informed us that conflict was something bad, something to be avoided, a sign of problems, not a sign of health. But then the swindlers came and sold us a new set of clothes. I don’t think the purveyors of “conflict is good” have done it with any malicious intent. It is likely a result of our culture shifting to more postmodern thinking, less black-and-white categories, which in many areas has been progress. In the arena of conflict, however, we may need to look at ourselves and our new clothes with new eyes (p. 61).

I went on to explain that healthy or productive conflict can probably be better understood in different terms such as healthy or rigorous debate or disagreement, the opposite of the kind of groupthink that I think Lencioni was trying to prevent. Healthy teams have sufficient levels of trust, respect, and other forms of relational capital to engage in robust ideological discussions or debates that focus on the search for the best decision for the sake of the group. Those healthy teams, however, have learned how to do this without falling into dysfunctional and destructive interpersonal conflict. In fairness, I was treating conflict primarily as an interpersonal or relational reality.

Conflict, in the literature, has been broken into three types as follows:

Relational or interpersonal conflict refers to opposing or incompatible differences in interpersonal style, preferences, personal taste, attitudes, and values, according to Jimmieson, Tucker and Campbell in an article in Personality and Individual Differences. It usually has a detrimental effect on group processes, communication, relationships, cohesiveness, and performance. In Pushing Back Entropy, I more deliberately defined conflict as not merely the result of differences but as an attack, either directly or indirectly, against another person following the devaluation or dehumanizing of them after the blocking of our perceived rightful demands to which we are entitled. When the intrapersonal devaluation of another becomes interpersonal, the conflict proper has emerged. This has some similarity to the dignity model of Donna Hicks, in her book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, which sees indignity as the core issue in interpersonal conflicts.

Task, cognitive, or ideological conflict is largely based on non-relational issues, and typically involves disagreements regarding the work or direction to be undertaken, differences in views about policies and procedures, the allocation of resources, interpretation of facts or events, or philosophically honest disagreements, according to Jimmieson, Tucker and Campbell.

Process conflict is a more recent third type of conflict discussed in the literature. It typically involves incompatibilities about how the work should be accomplished (who should do what, by when, etc.).

Breaking conflict into these three types, what do we know about the health or dysfunction of any of the three? Relational or interpersonal conflict has consistently been found to be detrimental to workplace teams and to be avoided, eliminated, or prevented, according to O’Neill, Allen and Hastings, in a 2013 article in Human Performance. Stable negative relationships have been found between both relational and process conflicts, according to DeWit, Greer and Jehn, in a 2012 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Both task and relationship conflict have been shown to have a negative effect on proximal group outcomes such as emergent states and group viability. There has been some evidence for the potential of task or ideological conflict to have a positive or negative effect on more distal outcomes such as overall group performance, according to DeWit, Greer and Jehn. It has also been found that task conflict has the potential to: (1) help groups make better decisions (less groupthink, more creativity), and (2) gain a greater affective acceptance of group decisions, according to Simons and Peterson in a 2000 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology. I addressed this reality in Pushing Back Entropy when I discussed the idea of healthy disagreement (task conflict) in teams that leads to full participation and higher levels of shared ownership:

Healthy teams engage in rigorous and respectful debate because they have previously cultivated a strong culture of trust and vulnerability. . . Every member of the team feels empowered to fully participate in group discussions, free from the fear of being shamed or embarrassed. Once they have fully contributed to the discussion, they are more able to fully support the decision of the team, even if it differs significantly from their personal proposal. . . Team members who feel fully heard and respected are able, with sufficient levels of trust, to release their personal thoughts or ideas and to fully embrace the decision of the whole. When we, as team members, walk out of the room, we own the decision jointly. The decision is ours, not theirs (p. 215-216).

Furthermore, there has been some evidence of the importance of emotional intelligence, namely emotional self-control, and of collectivistic cultures acting as moderating factors in conflict development, as stated by both Yang and Mossholder in a 2004 article in Journal of Organizational Behavior, and DeChurch, Mesmer-Magnus and Doty in a 2013 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Also, Simons and Peterson found that intragroup trust played a pivotal role in allowing high-trust teams to engage in task conflict without suffering the detrimental effects of relational conflict. For this reason, conflict has alternatively been viewed as dysfunctional or functional, but may be more appropriately considered quasi-functional, but in a very specific and perhaps limited way, according to Behfar and Thompson in their book Conflict in Organizational Groups: New Directions in Theory and Practice. The table below summarizes the pros and cons of the three types of conflict.

All of this evidence points to the qualified conclusion that conflict is a destructive force in the workplace, except in the narrow category of task conflict among mature teams. Conflicts that are personalized, are about processes, or are about tasks often detrimentally effect the team in many ways reducing both team composition, affect, and results. While noting the potential for healthy ideological conflict, what I have chosen to call “healthy disagreement,” in environments that have high levels of trust, respect, emotional intelligence, and collectivistic thinking and avoiding the problems that arise from groupthink, it still remains the case that conflict has far more potential for harm than good. Therefore, some of the earlier suggestions asking us to reconsider our view of conflict as mostly bad have failed to find support in the empirical research and should be questioned as viable strategies for workplace teams.

Conflict is a part of a bigger problem called organizational entropy, the way in which organizations and teams, which are made up of people and relationships, tend to decline away from health if left to themselves, requiring that teams and organizations maintain an intentional focus on actively pursuing health, pushing back entropy, and moving away from conflict. Conflict should not be normalized, but militated against.

If this is the case, ask yourself the following questions about your team or organization:

  1. What is our view of conflict? Is it acceptable behavior? Do we tolerate it or have we normalized it?
  2. What kinds of conflicts are most prevalent among us? Do we have unhealthy conflicts about relationships? processes? tasks?
  3. What can we do to change our culture concerning conflict?
  4. Do we have sufficient levels of trust, vulnerability, and safety to engage in rigorous debate or healthy disagreement? Why or why not? What do we need to do about this?
  5. How does your level of emotional intelligence affect your level and intensity of conflicts?
  6. What would you tell the Rotary Club about conflict?