Good or Bad Conflict? Understanding the Difference

In times of great change, leaders need new ways to adapt and scale their businesses. A key strategy is to use small teams of people working together to solve problems and share what they learn across the company. This approach helps businesses make faster and better decisions. Businesses that don’t adopt a small-team model may find themselves struggling to adapt to changes in their market. Agile software development teams bring people together with different experiences, expertise, and capabilities. Diverse backgrounds will naturally mean navigating different of opinions and viewpoints. Those teams that find a way to build trust will thrive with good healthy conflict. And those teams suffering from a lack of trust and bad conflict will produce mediocre results.


For a team to find success, it is important they understand the different types of conflict at play and their opportunities.

The Two Types of Conflict

Adam Grant has explored conflict in his book, Think Again. He has also shared his thoughts in the Hidden Brain podcast: The Easiest Person to Fool. As an aside, the Hidden Brain podcast is a great way to understand the science behind what drives human behavior.

All teams experience disagreement. Grant points out that conflict is a way a team can be innovative and make creative decisions. However many people feel it is something to avoid because it seems bad and counterproductive.

He states, “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy. If you’re in a group where people never disagree, the only way that could really happen is if people don’t care enough to speak their minds.”

Adam describes the two types that occur: task and relationship.

Task conflict is when a group of people disagrees over ideas or opinions. However, everyone is united on solving the problem at hand. Relationship conflicts, on the other hand, happen when distrust, personal animosity, and insults fill the disagreement.

Good Conflict

When a team agrees on a problem, the team members may have completely different ideas or opinions on the solution. If they can avoid personal attacks and allow the team to share and debate all ideas, then they are having healthy, productive conflict. This is the type that is often desired and discussed by leadership teams.

One example of the good kind is found with the Wright brothers. An interesting fact about them is that they loved fierce debate. This debate and challenging of viewpoints is a constructive way to identify solutions to lots of problems. They are even known for taking two different sides of a debate… and then switching in the debate to an opposing argument.

Orville Wright stated, “Often, after an hour or so of heated argument, we would discover that we were as far from agreement as when we started, but that each had changed to the other’s original position.”

Another great example of task conflict is found in Mike Marsiglia’s post on The Benefits of Ruthless Collaborative Critique. Like the Wright brothers, Mike describes how he and Shawn have “extremely thoughtful, very direct, and sometimes contentious review” of each other’s work. This is achievable because Mike and Shawn approach their conflict with a high degree of trust and alignment on the problem they are solving.

In all cases, good conflict elevates everyone to a higher level of success with creative solutions.

Bad Conflict

When people are cemented and passionate in their own ideas, they can fall into relationship conflict with others. When team members have this mindset, the team’s dynamics will be toxic, trust low and the free sharing of insights shuts down. Contempt will surface and people no longer look forward to working together. In this way, the best ideas are suppressed leading to disappointing results for the work.

What leads to relationship conflict? Differences in personality, values, cultural or interaction styles, or even ways of thinking. Communication breakdowns lead to people feeling misunderstood, criticized, and even attacked personally.

Sadly, we’ve all experienced these communication breakdowns. This seems to be a part of the human condition.

If a team can’t resolve a bad conflict amicably, it usually means that the relationship has to end. The good news is that there are ways to resolve this conflict. But it is hard work for all parties involved.

Navigating Bad Conflict

If you are trying to resolve bad conflict, Atomic’s blog is a good source of information. We are also big fans of the book Crucial Conversations. We’ve even included it in our curriculum for Accelerators.

Here are a few posts to review:

Getting Off to a Good Start

Understanding the differences in conflict allows us to address a bad interaction on a team when it occurs. If a debate on an idea or opinion comes across as a personal attack, it is important for the team to take action quickly to preserve safety. Without purposeful action, the team is at risk of toxic behavior spreading and becoming dysfunctional.

Knowing the importance of good conflict also allows us to purposely create positive team interactions. How new teams come together and start working is very important, especially in building trust. Start building trust by exploring and working through different ideas and allowing every voice to be heard at the table. As the group gains experience working through different ideas, they can trust one another enough not to turn the debate into relationship conflict.

We have learned that in-person team interactions really help establish strong bonds of trust and safety. With strong bonds, a team is free to debate ideas and share information. And how you start a team on work is central to its long-term success.

Mitigating Conflict with Trust and Communication

Conflict naturally occurs in human relationships. Teams bring their best work when trust is high and communication is open, and when they can engage in healthy debate. Here is where true innovation is achieved by those teams that embrace the good conflict.

Also, humans sometimes make conclusions based on assumptions, biased beliefs, and misguided judgments. When conflict starts to move into a bad space where the relationships are at risk, take immediate action.  Work to eliminate bad conflict by rebuilding safety and trust. And drive the team back toward long-term success.


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