Pounding fists and hurling insults in the meeting room is probably not the best way to get things done. But what happens if team members engage in spirited debate that is strictly focused on the work at hand? Will that be productive? According to new research (Bradley, Postlethwaite, Klotz, Hamdani, & Brown, 2012), the answer depends on the type of team climate already in place.
RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT VERSUS TASK CONFLICT
First, the authors discuss the difference between relationship conflict and task conflict. Relationship conflict is when team members argue on a personal level, which only leads to tension and animosity. Task conflict is when team members express differences of opinion that relate only to work tasks. Past research has shown that task conflict may sometimes be beneficial and sometimes be detrimental to team performance.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY CLIMATE
So what determines when task conflict is productive? According to this study, it is the presence of something called psychological safety climate. The authors explain that safety climate occurs when team members are not afraid to speak up and offer dissenting opinions that challenge the status quo. If people believe that they will be attacked for expressing alternative viewpoints, the climate is said to have low psychological safety. In this case, the team could be in danger of groupthink, which is when reluctance to speak up leads to poor or catastrophic team decision making.
The authors found that under a psychologically safe climate, task conflict leads to better team performance. This is because team members feel secure with discussing differing viewpoints and they understand that these opinions are strictly related to the work at hand. Under these circumstances, the team will produce more ideas and engage in healthy debate to arrive at the best solution. When psychological safety is low, team members may interpret any type of dissent as personal and threatening, even when it is task related.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This study highlights the importance of maintaining a work environment that encourages people to speak up and does not punish people for offering alternative opinions. When this happens, conflict related to work tasks will become a conduit for improving team performance and not a potential pitfall.
Bradley, B. H., Postlethwaite, B. E., Klotz, A. C., Hamdani, M. R., & Brown, K. G. (2012). Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: The critical role of team psychological safety climate. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(1), 151-158.
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