Using Conflict to Your Advantage

Butting heads is not always bad.

2004 Volume 7 Issue 1

Embracing conflict in groups is necessary for effective team dynamics and improved performance.

The hit television show “The Apprentice” may have garnered a large audience, but the model of teamwork it portrays is not what one would hope to foster in a real business. Contestants are encouraged to think only of themselves, to be highly competitive with one another, to criticize teammates, and to blame someone else for anything that goes wrong. Such behaviors generally do not result in good learning teams!

While conflict is endemic in organizational life, it need not always be negative. Those working together must understand the basic principles of how to use conflict to facilitate becoming a learning team that increases its capacity to take effective action through diffusion of knowledge and skills.

Much has been written about ways to modulate or suppress interpersonal conflict (e.g., active listening, using power and influence). It is less obvious how conflict may be useful and even necessary for a group to become an effective learning team. However, research shows that conflict can often be a means by which teams learn to work together effectively. In this article, we will show that there are different types of conflict and that particular types of conflict can be useful at one stage of organizational learning, but destructive at another stage.

Conflict in Four Stages of Organizational Learning

In an intensive study of teams in the aeronautical industry in the mid-’90’s, Tompkins[i] observed that successful learning teams went through a four-stage process before they achieved collective or organizational learning. The four stages were collaborative climate, collective understanding, collective competency, and continual improvement. Successful groups cycled progressively and sequentially through each stage. However, if a critical event or factor was not achieved, teams “stalled” in the process or cycled recursively to an earlier stage. (See Figure 1.)

Conflict often acted as a stimulant to propel teams toward organizational learning. On the other hand, not all teams became successful learning teams, and conflict was sometimes a factor when they did not.

The following suggestions for developing successful learning teams are based on Tompkins’ research. One must always take care not to make generalizations and suggestions for action based on one study, even a very in-depth study. Nevertheless, the model that was developed out of Tompkins’ observations may assist in the creation of effective learning teams.

Stage 1: Collaborative Climate

The essential requirement of stage one is for the team to become a cohesive group. Such cohesion occurs when the team develops ways of handling relationship conflict and learns to accept team members’ differing work styles. This stage begins with polite behavior that continues until the team members gradually become more open about their beliefs, values, and feelings. Trust builds as members accept as valid these beliefs, values and feelings. More specifically, members of successful learning teams must do the following:

  • Progressively improve their ability to accept and work with conflict involving interpersonal relationships on the team.
  • Learn how to confront each other, discuss issues vigorously, and hear arguments without feeling personally attacked.
  • Adopt a group norm of “not talking behind people’s backs” and not sharing team discussions with outsiders.

The end of Stage 1 is marked by the group’s having established trust based on successfully surfacing and resolving conflicts that originate from interpersonal differences. “Relational conflict” appears to be a precondition required before group learning can take place and before the group is able to move on to the second stage.

Not all teams are successful at this first stage, however. For example, Tompkins observed a computer services team that did not deal well with relationship conflict. Instead, the team resorted to voting on everything and adopting majority rule. They were uncomfortable with each other and avoided meeting or discussing issues.

Non-learning teams are not able to take the critical step of a true learning team, that of accepting differences to achieve a climate that supports the diffusion of knowledge and skills from some members to others within the group. As a result, unresolved conflict remains, cliques frequently influence decision making, and sometimes individual sabotage and group infighting become so severe that the team is unable to continue working together at all.

Stage 2: Collective Understanding

Clarity of Vision. The first step in the collective understanding stage is to develop clarity of vision. The team understands and articulates its goals and purpose. Conflicts about goals may occur initially, but as team members move to an understanding of what “integration” means for their team, they develop a clear vision of its goals.

Conflicts in this stage involve ends, alternatives, insights, goals, and directions rather than interpersonal issues.[ii] The end of this stage is marked by an epiphany or sudden joint recognition by the group of its convergent purpose. The group attains closure about what it wants to achieve.

Champions. The presence of a champion who is accepted by the team is one key to achieving collective understanding. Champions serve as supportive advocates or facilitators who help the team unify its commitment to common goals, values, and work processes by re-channeling conflicts away from relational issues and on to vigorous discussion about tasks. Champions can move the team toward organization learning because they can see the big picture.

Champions help diffuse knowledge among group members. For example, a defense industry team was mandated by contract to merge its cost and scheduling functions, a task that would be more easily accomplished if the team used a difficult-to-learn software. The team stalled until two team members taught themselves how to use the software and then rallied the rest of the team to learn from them.

Members of teams are more willing to accept a champion if everyone, including the champion, is strongly identified with the team. Evidence suggests that on non-learning teams, either no champion emerges, or other members do not respond to the potential champion’s rallying call. Furthermore, it is often difficult for a supervisor to be a champion on a team because he or she is not perceived to be a team member.

During the organizational learning of Stage 2, relationship conflict of Stage 1 needs to be minimal, but task conflict continues in the form of productive discussion and weighing of options. In this stage, suppression of other people’s views to those of the champion is not perceived as a loss of identity, but as an advancement of the group’s effectiveness. The group that successfully achieves this phase places high importance on getting on with its tasks.

Stage 3: Achieving Collective Competency

Learning from Mistakes: In the third stage, the team holds a collective set of skills and has the ability to act. The key questions focus on process and methods for ways to achieve the collective vision.

The true learning team practices a systematic disciplined process characterized by scrutinizing, benchmarking, documentation, and experimentation. Conflicts over methods may emerge, but these disagreements result in improved performance of the team’s work.[iii] Learning teams accept mistakes as a norm or natural cost of experimentation. When mistakes do occur, everyone on the team accepts responsibility rather than points fingers. True learning teams learn from their mistakes.

Members of non-learning teams are more likely to avoid taking chances or revealing mistakes. When mistakes are recognized, team members are likely to blame someone else on the team rather than accept personal responsibility.

Challengers: Stage 3 also includes the critical elements of devil’s advocacy and constructive criticism.[iv] These elements are incorporated in the role of the challenger. Learning teams at stage three in this research had at least one nonconforming member, a challenger, who brought procedural conflicts to the forefront.

The resistor or challenger is viewed ambivalently in the literature on management. Resistors are traditionally seen as those who resist or block important change efforts.[v] However, in so far as challengers raise questions about key assumptions, this study’s data suggest that challengers can be a positive influence. When most of the team embraced a change effort, resistors asked, “Why change?” If most of the team accepted assumptions or routines, resistors asked, “Why maintain the status quo?”

Challengers ask team members to look at problems from different perspectives. The challenger spends time in meetings asking difficult questions, disputing interpretation of facts, and confronting acceptable team thinking. In short, challengers embrace conflict. The challenger’s focus is most often on methods and means of the work task.

Champions, (Stage 2) tend to focus on the ends or long-term aspects of a task. The challenger’s domain is the short-term or the means, processes, and procedures associated with the task. However, it should be noted that a challenger is dysfunctional and cannot be effective until the team achieves a sense of unity and agreement on goals, usually during the second stage of organizational learning.

Stage 3 is marked by the team’s achievement of a high level of connectedness, good work flow, and expertise in its work. Team members have a mutual understanding of how to work and relate with one another and are able to manifest their collective competency. At this stage they have become a learning team. Whether they will continue to be so depends on whether or not they are able to work through the fourth stage.

Stage 4: Moving to Continual Improvement

Stage four represents a mature stage of organizational learning. The group now can continually modify its learning. Mutual appreciation and anticipation of each other’s strengths and weaknesses characterize the team’s interactions. Routines that capture previous learning are in place, and the group shares mastery of the tasks needed to do its work well. Competence and expertise are no longer found solely in a particular individual, but are diffused throughout the team. Diffused knowledge renders the team less vulnerable to the loss of a member.

New champion(s) and challenger(s) appear as needed to deal with new issues. These new issues may cause the team to recycle through the learning stages once again. If the group continues working together, its processes are self correcting. The team consequently achieves virtuosity or prowess that enables the members to work together and push on to solving new problems.

Relationship conflict remains in eclipse, whereas the positive roles of task and process conflicts continue to contribute to continuous learning. Ongoing healthy debate and dialogue, which can include moderate disagreement about incremental tasks, assignments, methods, and procedures, are typical of the routines that have taken hold and that characterize achievement in this phase of group learning.


Conflict can be a catalyst for organizational learning. The right type of conflict at critical moments in a group’s development propels the group to the next stage. However, if the conflict is too emotionally negative, or if it is the wrong type of conflict for that stage, the group is likely to repeat a prior stage in which the learning was incompletely integrated, thus giving the team another opportunity to master that stage. For overt expressions of conflict to function as a positive catalyst for change, however, there must be a ground of trust developed at stage one during which team members cognitively commit to the group as an entity that is worth continuing to support.

Of course, intense relationship conflict with highly negative emotionality can also emerge at later stages. If such conflict becomes toxic, it will prevent the group’s progression.[vi] The group may even revert to and/or repeat stage one. Excessive challenge, criticism, argumentation over tasks or processes can similarly transmute or degenerate into interpersonal conflicts. The four-stage model suggests that in such an occurrence, the group will cycle back to a previous stage of learning where it will remain until team members can establish the necessary conditions to move on.

By thinking of conflict as a spark for creativity and something that is desirable, or at least as behavior that can be tamed or “domesticated,” we can view conflict as a normal and expected outgrowth of the ways in which people and groups carry out standard processes rather than assume that conflict is a deviant behavior that must always be avoided.

[i] T. C. Tompkins, “A Developmental Approach to Organizational Learning Teams: A Model and Illustrative Research,”. M. M. Beyerlein and D. A. Johnson (Eds.), Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1997) 4: 281-302.. See also T.C. Tompkins “The Role of Diffusion in Collective Learning,” International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 3 (1995): 69-84.

[ii] K. Jehn, “A Qualitative Analysis of Conflict Types and Dimensions in Organizational Groups,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 40 (1997): 530 – 557.

[iii] B.Kabanoff, “Potential Influence Structures As Sources of Interpersonal Conflict in Groups and Organizations,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 36 (1985): 113-141.

[iv] A. C. Amason, “Distinguishing the Effects of functional and Dysfunctional Conflict on Strategic Decision Making: Resolving a Paradox for Top Management Teams,” Academy of Management Journal, 39 (1996): 123-148; R. Cosier & G. Rose, “Cognitive Conflict and Goal Conflict Effects on Task Performance,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 19 (1977): 378-391;D. Schweiger, W. Sandberg, and P.Rechner, “Experiential Effects of Dialectical Inquiry, Devil’s Advocacy, and Consensus Approaches to Strategic Decision Making,” Academy of Management Journal, 32 (1989): 745-772.

[v] M.Beer, Organization Change and Development: A Systems View (Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear Publishing Co.,1980); E. H. Schein, Organizational Psycholog,3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980); P. F. Schlesinger, V. Sathe, L. A. Schlesinger, and J. A. Kotter, Organization: Text, Cases and Readings on the Management of Organizational Design and Change, 3rd ed. (Homewood, Ill: Richard D. Irwin, Inc.,1992)

[vi] Jehn, 1997.~

About the Author(s)

Teri C. Tompkins, PhD, as managed diverse functions such as marketing, human resources, strategy, and operations in the corporate, small business, and not-for-profit markets. She has consulted and conducted research for firms such as Motorola, LA Cellular, Boeing, TRW, US Forest Service, Xerox, LearnShare at Comcast, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Canada, and Phillips Europe and North America. As associate professor at Pepperdine's Graziadio School, Dr. Tompkins teaches in the Executive MBA and fully-employed MBA programs. She is the author of six textbooks and teaching manuals, the most recent International Cases in Management and Organizational Behavior. Her co-authored GBR article, "Using Conflict to Your Advantage: Butting heads is not always bad," has been reprinted in corporate newsletters.

Kathryn S. Rogers, PhD

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