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When does disagreement create high performing teams?

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When you’re running a 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.

Even disagreement can be fine, too, as it can sometimes bring out the best in some people.

However, where do you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy conflict?

Research studies have shown that relational conflict, or personal disagreements in a team, is an indication of poor teamwork. After all, when the conflict is no longer about the work itself, but about personal matters the focus is no longer on the team task. 

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, relational conflict, in general, is shown to be problematic.

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

A more recent 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 teams of five students each throughout a whole semester. 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. Given this psychological safety, members will be more open to share their ideas and explore it more with the team.

The data gathered, however, was not conclusive. The researchers had confirmed their theory that the higher the level of psychological safety, the higher the team will perform on the project. However, they didn’t see a drop in the performance of the team with low psychological safety, implying that although this factor can benefit the team, lacking it will not affect the group in terms of performance.

The EBW View

Despite the inconclusive results, the research supports the idea that promoting psychological safety in teams is highly important for leaders when building high performing teams. Conflict can aid performance if leaders approach conflict Emotional Intelligently and use it to improve how the team responds to challenges.

"Promoting psychological safety is highly important for leaders when building high performing teams".

3 ways leaders can encourage psychological safety and help teams to act in an Emotionally Intelligent way are: 

  • Encouraging the sharing of opinions and ideas, even if they don’t conform to what majority of the members think. It is important to set ground rules, including everyone’s right to share their views (Pedler, M 1996 and Weinstein, K 1999).

  • Actively listening to and acknowledging all contributions by team members, no matter how crazy the ideas seem to be. 

  • Appreciating each team member’s effort to join in the discussions by providing positive feedback.

A by-product of Bradley’s research is it demonstrates the importance of using psychological assessment tools, such as The EBWt Team MAPS, to understand team members and how they operate in conflict, when building high performing teams. 


Bradley, B.H., Postlethwaite, B.E., Klotz, A.C., Hamdani, M.R., & Brown, K.G. (2012). Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: The critical role of team psychological safety climate. Journal of Applied Psychology 97(1), 151-158.

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