How conflict goes viral

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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.

Performance, efficiency, creativity and satisfaction are all suffering. In a matter of weeks, days, hours — or even seconds, we believe — the team's potential has been tremendously diminished. Perhaps the only saving grace at a full-team conflict is that there may actually be more potential for a resolution because at this phase, everyone has a stake in the conflict, and many people will want to resolve it.

At this third phase, if the conflict goes on, it becomes impossible for anyone to stay out of the conflict. When conflicts reach this stage, the work at hand, the whole raison d'être for the team — is suffering immensely.

Is all hope lost? Not necessarily. Though conflict is damaging the team's outcomes, they may be able to resolve the conflict, and emerge into a new equilibrium.

If you are a manager, intervening before a personal conflict spreads to the rest of the team is crucial. The longer a conflict goes on, and the more parties that become involved, the more complicated it becomes.

We offer the following guidelines for managers to help their teams through the inevitable conflicts:

  • Keep an eye on dyadic disagreements. Although conflicts always begin between two people, they often don't stay there. If a conflict is starting to escalate and bring in others for reasons other than pure task opinions (e.g., people are siding with friends or using the conflict to push personal issues), it's probably time to intervene. A well-timed lunch could keep the team on track, or even negate the need for the expensive conflict resolution consultant later.
  • Try to understand what the real issue is before you intervene. For each person, the fight might be about something different. Perhaps it is a personal slight, from a year ago, that still rankles. Or, most likely in a high-powered team, one or both people could be trying leverage up by pushing the other person down. Or the two characters might just be a mismatch. In any given work conflict, the real conflict is often not what is being verbally expressed. Often underlying concerns relating to respect and rank may be the true issues behind many conflicts.
  • Be aware of your own biases. Research suggests that when laypeople intervene in a conflict, they end up siding with one of the parties, exacerbating the coalition effect. Know when to delegate the intervention to a more neutral party. People within your company who are skilled at conflict resolution, naturally or by training, are a huge asset.

Not all conflict is bad. A task-oriented conflict, in which the disagreements are over the substance of what should be done can be productive as long as people's motivations are driven by a genuine desire to argue points of view with an eye toward reaching the best decisions. Pure motivations are rare, however — and what seems like a task-oriented conflict at first may be something deeper and more apt to spread into dysfunction.

Whatever you do, don't be fooled into thinking that you can ignore a dispute and hope that it will go away. An unresolved team conflict will stay with the team forever.

Lindred Greer is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her research on conflict contagion was published in the International Journal of Conflict Management and was recently named the top outstanding paper in that journal for the year.

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