Dysfunctional Conflict

The Basic Idea

It is a common misconception that conflict in a team is bad and that it should be avoided. When friction leads to a breakdown of cooperation, we often blame a lack of communication, poor leadership, distrust among employees, unfounded or unnecessary rivalries, or simply high stress leading to burnout. While these are definitely issues that need to be addressed in a timely manner, conflict in general is healthy and normal in group settings. One such conflict, dysfunctional conflict, is what can be commonly described as a falling out among employees due to issues that encapsulate many if not all of the issues described above and more.

While each problem in isolation does not seem difficult to fix, the difficulty of resolving dysfunctional conflict is due to the multitude of potential offending items and the innately complex nature of human dynamics working in a group. Many times, a mediator or arbitrator is brought in to evaluate the set of problems causing the conflict and coming up with strategies that can resolve them in a holistic manner. It may involve trust building exercises, team retreats, or creating an office-wide conflict resolution policy. Dysfunctional conflicts are commonplace in the office but finding strategies that work for your specific team is the key.

Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.

– Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

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Key Terms

Mediation - is an informal process where a third party (a mediator) is recruited to provide a subjective judgement on the issue between the two parties involved.

Arbitration - is a formal process where a third party (an arbitrator) hears the arguments of both sides and makes a decision that's usually binding.


In general, there are four stages of dysfunctional conflict that span from rooting out the source of the conflict at the earliest level to creating organization-wide policies that outline resolution strategies.1 At each stage, methods of resolution are linked to the hierarchy progression of the organization. The first stage of dysfunctional conflict is being able to articulate the issues causing the conflict and provide a resolution based on the basic information. Incompatibility between the team members or between the team members and the work environment is often the source of misunderstandings and lack of communication. At the mid-level, it is imperative that resolutions incorporate policies for addressing future problems that could potentially arise and proactively resolve current issues or by bringing them to upper management. At this stage, it is important for employees to recognize and internalize the issues that cause the conflict in the first place. At the senior level, management should step in as a mediator or arbitrator to rectify the problem and finally, at the executive level, the firm should institute a standard policy or procedure one should follow should similar conflicts arise. While dysfunctional conflicts are inevitable and a common occurrence in the workplace, having clear steps to mediate the conflict at all stages will prevent panic and confusion in the moment.


Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni is an American author, speaker, and consultant who has written prolifically on the subject of organizational politics and team dynamics. Specifically in regards to dysfunctional conflict, he writes in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, that there are five qualities or behaviours that if performed to its potential, will effectively reduce the possibility of dysfunctional conflict. The characteristics that he emphasizes are trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. Each step builds on the previous and highlights issues such as the importance of building the core team, the need for competent leaders, recognition that time spent avoiding conflict is time wasted, and the ripple effect of leadership dynamics. He also claims that it is important to give timely feedback to the employees and give them time to process and reflect.2


Poor management in a team can have devastating consequences on a team’s productivity, morale, and overall performance. There are five characteristics of dysfunctional conflict.3 The first characteristic is increased tension. When a team encounters dysfunctional office, tensions may rise due to anxiety, hostility, and frustration among the members. If the tension is not addressed, it could build up and result in more serious consequences. Along with increased tension, there would be an increase in dissatisfaction. Especially if a party loses or receives the short end of the stick in a resolution, this can imbed feelings of dissatisfaction that would adversely affect the productivity of the group. A prolonged environment of negativity will then lead to distrust. This would decrease the cohesiveness of the group and cause members to avoid interaction. An accumulation of unproductive actions without timely resolutions would distract members from organizational goals. This could directly lead to a decrease in the team’s output and affect organizational goals and projects. Ultimately, poor management in the face of dysfunctional conflict would cause high employee turnover rates. Thus, the firm not only suffers a loss due to an unproductive environment but also loses valuable human capital and transition costs.


When a group is hit with dysfunctional conflict, not only can internal controversy slowly deteriorate the unity of a team, but the way the situation is handled can reflect to the outside community the values and priorities of the team and subsequently, the entire organization. From what we gleaned before about the characteristics of dysfunctional conflict, it is vital to build a sense of trust and camaraderie between members. Just like how constructive criticism is most efficient and useful as feedback, a “constructive controversy” uses styles of communication that is centered around issues and ideas instead of personal criticism.4

Case Study

Sometimes dysfunctional conflicts may occur in an environment where disharmony between team members may result in life or death consequences. According to a study done by Michael A.E. Ramsay on physicians in hospital settings, a “dysfunctional physician presents an insidious cost to any practice or health care organization.”5 The individual becomes a liability to his or her colleagues and their patients. In an already high-stress environment, the study states that the consequences are severe: resulting in poor job performance which can lead to unnecessary harm to the patients and subsequent lawsuits towards the physician or the hospital. The study analyzes several ways to resolve or prevent conflicts such as the good-cop bad-cop approach and also the establishment of a professional code of conduct that sets ground rules for discipline. The study concludes that one of the most important aspects of resolving dysfunctional conflict is the need for an emotionally intelligent and competent leader. He or she should be able to handle tense situations and difficult people with diplomacy and consistency.

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