A Grand, Unified Theory of Team Conflict
Conflict can kill your team. Here is one theory of where it comes from and how to prevent it.
All teams experience conflict. If you are working hard towards an aggressive goal on a short timeline, conflict is an inevitable result.
However, there are different degrees of conflict ranging from healthy to toxic. I loosely break down team conflict on the following scale:
🟢 Level 1: Tension
Tension is healthy, a result of passionate people pushing for opposing points of view. People care about their ideas and advocate for them with passion. However, it’s about ideas and not people.
🟡 Level 2: Fighting
Fighting is unhealthy, when people are actively trying to win. The topic matters less than the win, and specifically defeating others. Fighting leads to more fighting.
🔴 Level 3: Toxicity
Toxicity is dangerous, where the team no longer even fights. They just avoid each other and try to further their goals by undermining, excluding and generally hurting each other.
You want tension, because you want ideas to be tested against other ideas to ensure the best ideas win. You should avoid fighting and you certainly need to avoid toxicity. Before we discuss how to do that, we need an operating theory of where conflict comes from.
Where Unhealthy Conflict Comes From
My grand, unified theory is that team conflict arises from a mismatch of expectations. If different people have different expectations, even if they don’t share them, conflict is going to arise. Consider the following examples:
A product manager expects a given feature should be completed within a single sprint, while the engineering manager expects it should take 3-4 sprints. The PM and EM will be in conflict because their expectations about effort are different.
One co-founder expects that the startup will reach product/market fit within six months, while the other co-founder expects it will take 2 years. After six months, these co-founders will be in conflict as one thinks the company is in trouble and the other things they are doing fine.
The VP of Sales expects they will get commission on an unusual contract, but the CEO expects that only standard contracts pay commissions. They will be in conflict when the time comes to pay commissions.
An employee expects they will be promoted at the end of the year, while the manager doesn’t expect to promote anyone on their team. At the end of the year they will be in conflict because the employee is disappointed while the manager is surprised.
These are just a few examples, but you can see how the theory works. At the core of conflict are two parties who expect different outcomes from the same event! Those differing expectations mean one person is disappointed when the other is satisfied or happy. That difference is the seed of conflict.
Those two co-founders with different expectations on how long it will take to find product/market fit? They might be fighting about fundraising, hiring or product strategy. In fact, they are probably fighting about a lot of things, but the seed of all of that conflict was the mismatch in expectations about how long they would have to struggle to find PMF. Even worse, since the seed of their conflict isn’t what they are actually fighting about it can be very hard to diagnose.
This is true even if the two people don’t share their expectations with each other! In fact, most expectations are kept secret. This is why you see conflict arise in all sorts of odd places for no reason: If I expect something but never tell you, how can you possibly know if our expectations are the same? You can’t, and the chances our expectations are different and we end up in conflict are very high.
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How Do Manage Conflict?
Viewed through this theory, managing conflict is really about managing expectations. The earlier you set expectations with others, and understand their expectations, the better you can prevent situations where mismatched expectations result in conflict.
Going back to our two founders, imagine if they had sat down before founding the company and discussed their expectations first. Laying out all of your internal, secret expectations is hard and uncomfortable because we do it so rarely, but doing so is important. If they had shared their expectations about the time taken to reach product market fit, one or both of them might have been able to adjust their expectations appropriately.
The best way to manage expectations is to keep everything in the open. The more transparent you are about everything, the less chance there will be that expectations are mismatched. Here are some easy ways to start setting expectations today:
Publish your company goals and expectations for the next 6 months on your internal site. Update it constantly as your expectations (or projections) change, and explain why they are changing. Shifting expectations is a common source of conflict.
Write down your processes, even if it’s just a paragraph. Processes are the expectations about how people will work together, and those are some of the most common expectations to get misaligned. Writing it down forces people to adjust their expectations.
Build a habit of asking your team about their expectations. If you ask, they will get into the habit of sharing their expectations about their job, their career, their work and the company. Avoid secret expectations by having no secrets!
Expectations are difficult, because sometimes we can’t always describe them. An expectation might be a feeling or half-formed thought. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and the more you try the better you will get. Like any skill, you improve through repetition so just get started.
No unified, grand theory is perfect and there are some other ways conflict might occur.
For example, some people are just horrid. They enjoy conflict and create it just for their enjoyment. I’m hoping that your team does not include any of these people and if it does you fire them very quickly.
There will also be misunderstandings, and those lead to conflict sometimes. In these cases, the same transparency that helps set expectations will help since the team is more likely to talk it out and identify the misunderstanding. The less transparent you are, the less incentive the team has to be transparent themselves.
And, of course, you will still have healthy tension! Not all smart people agree, but that’s a great thing. The more ideas you have competing against each other, the better decisions you’ll make. It’s not that we don’t want conflict at all, we just want it to make us better.
For more on improving how your team works together:
Communicating Change is a critical skill to keep your team together.