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When can disagreement create great teams?

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In 2015, Google published their two year study into what makes a great team. 

The interesting results from Google's study was that it wasn’t necessarily the teams that had the most senior people or those with the highest IQs or even teams that made the least amount of mistakes that were the highest performing teams. 

The biggest indicator for great teams was the concept of Psychological Safety and the ability for teams to deal with disagreements, to be able to have frank and open discussions about what was not working in the team.

When you’re working with your team, do you expect your team members to agree all the time with you? Or do you welcome disagreements?

Emotional Intelligent team leaders know that the expression of differing opinions can be good for the team. 

But, where do you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy disagreements/conflict? 

Research studies have consistently shown that relational conflict, or personal disagreements in a team, is an indication of poor teamwork.

After all, when the disagreement/conflict is no longer about the work itself, but about personal matters the focus is no longer on the team task. 

However, what is not clear in studies is whether task-related conflicts are good for the team.

In a 2003 meta-analysis conducted by researchers De Dreu & Weingart, team conflict, in general, is shown to be problematic.

However, almost a quarter of the studies they had surveyed showed that it can be beneficial as well and might even lead to better team performance.

So why was it that nearly 25% of studies suggested that conflict can be positive for the team? What was different about those teams? 

A study by Bret Bradley, Bennett Postlethwaite, Anthony Klotz, Maria Hamdani, and Kenneth Brown aimed to exactly find out the answer to this question: when does team disagreement become a benefit rather than a liability?

Bradley and his colleagues studied 117 project teams with 5 members each throughout their project cycle of 12 weeks. Three measures were taken; one at the beginning of the study to assess subject matter knowledge, one in the middle of the semester to measure the levels of task-related conflict in the team, and the final assessment which looked at the team project as an indicator of work performance.

Bradley’s team theorized that conflict within the team is healthy if members feel that they are encouraged to express themselves in the team without any adverse consequences. To feel psychological safe..

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Given this psychological safety, members will be more open to share their ideas and explore it more with the team.

The results from the research suggested that psychological safety climate moderates the relationship between task conflict and performance.

Specifically, task conflict and team performance were positively associated under conditions of high psychological safety. In other words when teams felt they were psychological safe it facilitated the performance benefits of task conflict in teams.

The EBW View

The reality is conflict in teams is as a natural and inevitable part of every relationship. This is especially true of disruptive teams. Teams that are made up of a mix of strong personalities, expertise and experience that have been combined to provide outstanding performance.

And the only way to deal with conflict and break free of a negative dynamic within a team is to confront it.

Because most people fear task or personal conflict, team members engage in repressing their feelings and frustration, avoid a person or people threatening the common ground or begin to placate these people in an effort to make tensions dissipate.

These commonly used psychological strategies can lead to the ruin of the cohesiveness of the team due to frustration on the part of individual members.

Instead of internalising or personalising a bad situation or disagreement, team members must to learn to manage conflict by externalising it and facing the issues.

Have you ever been in a meeting where no one voiced their opinions, there was no discussion and people simply went along with what their manager said? Or even the opposite where team members have such strong opinions that they don't listen to each other, so they don't reach a satisfactory agreement. 

Googles 2 year study showed that great teams are able to bounce ideas off each other, strengthen action plans, help solve issues and provide support. 

Bradleys research suggests leaders who approach task conflict Emotional Intelligently and use the concept of "Psychological Safety" will not only improve how a team responds to challenges but also improve their performance by benefiting from interaction that task conflict brings.

Interestingly the techniques that encourage psychological safety can also be used to start the process to resolve personal conflict in team

Here are some reminders that leaders can use to encourage psychological safety to help teams deal and benefit from task conflict: 

  • Lead by example

  • Ask for upward feedback

  • Acknowledge your mistakes

  • Make an effort to take on board opinions that differ from your own

  • Be approachable and encourage reports to ask questions

  • Encourage active listening

  • Leave phones at the door during meetings

  • Show understanding by repeating what was said

  • Encourage people to share more by responding and asking questions

  • If certain individuals rarely speak during meetings, actively ask them for their opinion

  • Create a safe environment

  • Don’t allow people to interrupt each other

  • All ideas should be accepted equally and never judged

  • Never place blame

  • Encourage out of the box and off the wall suggestions, as they often lead to the most innovative projects

  • Develop an open mindset

  • Help your team become comfortable receiving feedback from each other

  • Teach them how to first listen, analyze and then respond to input from others

  • Rather than a criticism, encourage your team to see feedback as a way to strengthen their ideas

These tips will help encourage Psychological Safety to create teams that are more flexible, are better able to respond to challenges and will benefit from interaction that task conflict brings and as the Google study shows, in the longer term produce high performing teams.

However if you need to unlock, accelerate and optimise teamwork to change how people work together then click the team link or book an EBW Discovery Meeting with an EBW Partner.. 

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Based on over 20 years of worldwide use and research, it enables you to get leaders and teams to understand why they behave the way they do and use a highly effective 10 step framework to improve their occupational performance.

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