How do we improve performance? Do we cut costs and focus on efficiency? Invest in sales, technology or marketing? Should we develop our existing product suite or start from scratch on something new? Do we grow local market share or explore uncharted territories?

We need to prioritise our outcomes and allocate our resources as a leadership team. This is task conflict in action and it can be resolved in different ways. Let’s look at two:

  1. By politics and groupthink – As his company’s marketing director, Jacob wades in with a glossy pitch to put brand front and centre. The product’s a laughing stock so that won’t do much good, but he’s the CEO’s golfing buddy and heir apparent. No one wants a corporate Hunger Games so the heads around the table nod their consent.
  2. By open conflict – The team foster intellectual disagreement. They listen to opposing views and focus on content over delivery-style. They challenge each other and develop a balanced strategy in response to the discussion. They understand the need and reasons for compromise.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the latter approach is shown to improve productivity under the right conditions; the task-focus of the conflict encourages teams to share information and put their collective strategy under a critical spotlight. But I bet you’ve also worked in teams that are more in line with the first option and where it would be nigh impossible to engage in this sort of decision-making process? That kind of dog eat dog, egocentric leadership might be ringing some bells?

This is relationship conflict

Conflict turns toxic when it gets personal; it influences our effectiveness, our creativity and our satisfaction at work. The ‘deal’ of a shared vision is broken in our first example because Jacob, the marketing director, cares more about his personal standing and success. It’s not possible to engage in positive task conflict because the team are no longer working toward the same endpoint. Their competing individual goals overshadow their shared objectives and constructive criticism is likely to be interpreted as an individual attack. The conditions are set for anxiety, groupthink and resentful compliance.

Purpose and trust are valuable antidotes

The more an outcome is perceived to hold meaningful value, the more likely we are to debate our options. Let’s imagine we’re trying to escape a haunted house and there’s some shrieking and wailing coming from the attic. One of our team thinks it’s the sound of other ghost hunters celebrating their escape and wants to lead us up the creaky stairway to safety. Are we going to consent and join our ‘human’ friends for a chain-rattling party? No – of course not. Because I’d be suggesting an alternative view and I’m sure you would too.

You get the point. If there’s no shared purpose in our work and we see no worth in the product or service we bring to our customers, then why bother cultivating a team environment where task conflict thrives? On the other hand, a meaningful mission connects us with our peers and facilitates connection; a critical pillar of motivation. It offers us a platform ready for productive debate and cooperation.

Intra-team trust is closely linked; a management concept that sounds woolly but strikes me as a damn sight more productive than the average remuneration strategy (take a look at this summary from a previous blog post.) Last year, a meta-analysis of 112 studies showed a positive relationship between trust and team performance. The results supported Google’s much-publicised claim that ‘psychological safety’ – the confidence that you won’t be rejected or punished for speaking up – was the leading indicator of high performance among their teams. It will come as no surprise that task conflict is more likely to be positively resolved in the presence of trust.

So how do you improve performance?

From a task perspective, who knows? It could be any combination of the options at the top of the article (and a whole load more). But you can’t easily jump into that debate unless you’ve got a team that trust each other enough to disagree, and who are working for something more than their pay cheque.

Have a think about whether your company facilitates that environment. What do those quarterly sales targets, competitive performance rankings, corporate silos and individual bonuses really contribute? Other than building walls and suspicion among teammates? What could you do to foster togetherness and mutual trust instead? How could you highlight the collective value you bring to the outside world and use it to promote a task conflict that will bring out your best?

High performing teams aren’t always on the same page, but they trust each other’s intentions and they share the same aims. When those conditions are fostered, critical views and difficult conversations are purposeful and progressive. Decisions are put under the stress of conflict and only the fittest survive.

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Notes:

  • The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: Image by geralt, under a CC0 licence
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James Elfer is Founder and Director at MoreThanNow, a change and engagement consultancy bringing purpose to work. He studies behavioural science through the LSE Executive Masters programme, and can be reached at jameselfer@morethannow.co.uk