How conflict goes viral
We know dysfunctional conflict when we see it, from boardroom brawls to teams whose members spend so much time in their silos sniping at each other that they get nothing done. But how do conflicts start, and, more mysteriously, how do they infect an entire group on such a grand scale?
These are critical questions for any manager. Though conflicts inevitably arise among individuals, if they spread and remained unresolved, they hurt a team's performance — and as the research shows, they do so for the entire life of the team. Time may heal personal wounds, but the damage done to the fragile, ever-changing dynamic of a team won't go away.
Yet little research has been done into how conflicts emerge and taint teams. I set out with my colleagues Karen Jehn of the Melbourne Business School, Sonja Rispens of the Eindhoven University of Technology, and Karsten Jonsen of IMD to more precisely describe how conflicts spread to a team. We identified three stages of conflict contagion and three mechanisms of how it spreads.
Consider a typical meeting in which one team member proposes an idea and another disagrees. At this moment, the first phase in our model of conflict contagion, the disagreement is primarily what we call dyadic, interpersonal conflict. At the next meeting, these same two members continue to disagree about the issue. One member, who is a personal friend of the member who first presented the idea, jumps into the debate on the side of that member.
Another member, after weighing the arguments of both sides, eventually decides that the member presenting the counterargument has the better case, entering stage two, which we call partial contagion. Clear coalitions begin to emerge, which is one of the mechanisms for spreading conflict. Some members do not take sides, perhaps because they do not yet care enough about the issue to become involved. They may not even be aware of the conflict. At this point, the conflict is taking a moderate toll on team outcomes. Some team members who are least comfortable with conflict may begin to check out, physically or intellectually.
As the factions begin to take sides on other issues, tensions flare. This emotionally charged behavior is another way conflict spreads. As a side note, but an interesting one, we believe that teams that work together virtually may be less prone to such emotionally-driven conflict contagion.
At the fourth team meeting, someone storms out of the room. This mood may begin to spread to those who had tried to hold their distance from the conflict. For example, the negative affect spreading through the team could lead initially uninvolved members to argue, yell, and slam doors. Additionally, as the conflict contagion progresses, issues that could affect outcomes for all team members may surface. For instance, is it fair that an issue of prime importance to some members of the team now dominates the team's agenda? Those team members motivated by the quality of the work or the overall success of the team may join the conflict at this point, in an effort to get the team back on track. This we label as “threats to outcome,” a third way that disputes spread throughout a team. Now, we've arrived at the third phase, or a full-blown conflict.
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