I was fascinated by this section of “The Captain Class,” by Sam Walker.  Walker studied the most successful teams in the history of sports with a close look on the characteristics of the captains of those teams.

In this section, Walker talks about Karen Jehn, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and one of the foremost authorities on group conflict.

“During her long career, Jehn had conducted studies on teams that showed that certain kinds of disagreements didn’t have a negative effect – in fact, teams that had high levels of conflict were often more likely to engage in open discussions that helped them arrive at novel solutions to problems.  The worst outcomes came when groups engaged in thoughtless agreements.  Nevertheless, hundreds of experiments had concluded that conflict was harmful to a group’s performance.

In 2012, Jehn and two colleagues published a meta-analysis of sixteen different experiments based on 8,880 teams.  The paper’s goal was to test a theory that Jehn had developed about the nature of group conflict.  Jehn believed that “conflict” needed to be better defined.  She believed that dissent inside teams took several different forms.  One was something she called personal or relationship conflict, which is defined as the manifestation of some personality clash – an interpersonal ego-driven showdown between a team’s members.  This kind of dispute was distinct from another form, task conflict, which is defined as any disagreement that isn’t personal but arises from, and is focused on, the actual execution of the work at hand.  There was a difference, she believed, between teams that squabbled because the members didn’t like one another and teams that fought over their different views of how to solve a problem they were working on.

Jehn and her colleagues divided the 8,880 teams between those where personal conflict had arisen and those where task conflict was the predominant force to see if there was any variation in how well they performed.  The differences were stark.  Teams that had engaged in personal conflict had shown significant decreases in trust, cohesion, satisfaction and commitment – all of which had a negative impact on their performance.  For teams that had undergone task conflict, however, the effect on there performance was basically neutral.  Arguing about the job at hand hadn’t helped them, but it hadn’t hurt.

There was one exception, however: teams that operated in highly pressurized environments.  These teams were different from the others in that their work yielded immediate, quantifiable results – such as financial performance – that left no mystery about how successful their efforts had been.  On teams like this, which received instant feedback through some system of scorekeeping, the presence of task conflict wasn’t neutral at all.  It made their performances about 40 percent better than average.  “We have found that task conflicts are not necessarily disruptive for group outcomes,” the authors wrote.  “Instead, conditions exist under which task conflict is positively related to group performance.”  In other words, teams that get quick, concrete feedback on their work, as they do in sports, got better results when they battled over details.”

I find this stuff fascinating for coaches.  In team sports, where the feedback is instant, task-related conflict actually helps increase performance by about 40%.  Conflict is a necessary part of leadership, especially in team sports.  Teams that confront each other on the task at hand actually get better.

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