When your staff bicker and compete, your initial response should be to remind them they're part of the same team and encourage them to be friendly, right? Not necessarily; we're now realising that a level of tension and hostility can actually make teams more effective.
Fight picture from Shutterstock
Organisations are increasingly bringing together teams of employees from different parts of the organisation to apply a broad range of relevant skills towards complicated tasks. Over time, these teams can suffer from an over-reliance on shared knowledge and fail to share and discuss points of difference.
This is where conflict can help. When team members are asked to be critical and norms of conflict emerge in a group, members are more likely to share their specialised information, which enhances team performance.
Apples and oranges
Interdisciplinary teams are particularly common in health care, which has been the focus of my research. Teams made up of different professions such as doctors, nurses, dietitians and pharmacists have been shown to improve clinical care, reduce medications per patients and reduce admission to hospital and emergency wards. They're also likely to be more innovative and more effective than homogeneous teams.
Benefits are also seen outside the health-care industry, with research demonstrating that teams of professionals such as engineers, architects and surveyors are able to decrease costs and design more creative products.
Bringing together different professions poses significant challenges including friction and breakdown in communication. This is explained by theories such as the similarity-attraction paradigm: we tend to like and work effectively with people who we perceive as similar to ourselves — at work this is often based on profession — and dislike people who we see as different.
The typical approach to this dilemma has been to charge leaders with minimising negative dynamics and boosting positive aspects of team interaction. But it is very difficult to reduce the sources of conflict that cause hostility, such as differences in professional status and values.
When team members perceive a threat to their profession, such as pressure to compromise on their profession's priorities or change their professional approach, teams are more innovative. When team interaction is characterised by tension and hostility, their work can be more effective.
This seems counter-intuitive, but our findings do not advise a team climate that is overwhelmingly hostile and characterised by threat. Successful leadership requires the ability to create a tension between positive and negative dynamics.
Transformational leaders are known to have high expectations and like to set goals and lead by example. They're also thought to be well-suited to teamwork.
Yet, while these leaders can increase motivation to work across occupational boundaries, this focus on cooperation can lead to premature consensus and conformity. When this occurs, we found that negative mood (reflecting hostility, upset and tension) can provide an effective counter. Negative mood signals to the team that something is wrong, promoting team members to question existing ideas and rely less on assumptions.
In the absence of negative mood, the motivation to work cooperatively reduces effectiveness, but a tension between cooperation and hostility enhances performance.
The same tension between positive and negative dynamics enhances other styles of leadership. Inclusive leaders strive to assure team members that their individual voices and unique perspectives will be valued.
But while creating a participative climate allows team members to express their viewpoints, it may not motivate them to do so. The capacity of inclusive leaders to engender innovation is dependent on whether team members perceive a threat to their profession. Feeling threatened drives members to advocate the distinguishing attributes of their profession's position.
It is the tension between feeling included and feeling threatened that motivates teams to find a solution that incorporates diverse and dissenting viewpoints and increases the likelihood of innovation. When teams appear to move towards compromise at the expense of dissent and critical analysis, negative mood and conflict may introduce a useful tension.
But managers should be cautious about engendering such moods, which have also been linked to team failure. One approach with potential for encouraging conflict within safe parameters is through interventions such as devil's advocacy which direct dissent to task-related, rather than personal, issues.
Rebecca Mitchell is Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle. She has received funding from the NSW Institute of Rural Clinical Services and Teaching.