How to Handle Conflict in Teams: Lessons from Scientific Collaborations

How to handle conflict in teams? Most advice centers on eliminating conflict. But an expert on helping scientific collaborators work together fruitfully recommends finding ways to live with productive disagreement.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

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Conflict in work teams is common. Team members may have different views regarding who performed the most work—and who should get the most credit. Those lower in the hierarchy might feel their superiors are marginalizing their contributions and grow resentful and uncooperative. And team members often have different opinions about which ideas to pursue and how to implement them. 

How to handle conflict in such collaborations? Conflict resolution experts often treat conflict as something to be reduced and, if possible, eliminated. But Howard Gadlin came to a different view while working as an ombudsperson (someone who helps mediate conflicts) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, UCLA, Harvard University, and other organizations. 

“Scientists thrive on, and science depends on, disagreement—productive disagreement,” writes Gadlin in a chapter in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference. He reached this realization after finding that a traditional approach to conflict resolution “was not quite right” when he was mediating conflicts among scientists involved in collaborations. That’s because the goal of scientific teams was not to resolve conflict but rather to create “the conditions for productive conflicts,” Gadlin writes. 

This shift in direction is subtle but critical, he says. The concept of “productive disagreement” can show us how to handle conflict in all kind of collaborations—not just those among scientists, according to Gadlin.  

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Troubled Collaborations vs. Disputes

As a professional mediator, writes Gadlin, he would stay attuned to “possible solutions to the obstacles or problems that are keeping the parties from resolution.” The more he worked with scientists, especially those involved in complex collaborations or large teams, the less he found himself paying attention to possible paths to resolution, which no longer seemed a central goal. Instead, he focused on “how they handled and communicated about differences,” including “differences in discipline, theoretical framework, methodology, preferred forms of data and statistical analysis, and a host of other differentiating factors.” More important than conflict resolution in how to handle conflict, he realized, was helping to “ensure that scientists were having the same conversation.” 

Often, conflict resolution in the workplace involves helping disputants move from a narrow win-lose approach to their conflict toward a joint problem-solving approach. But in scientific team collaborations, as in many other project teams, members adopt a problem-solving framework from the start, writes Gadlin. Whether they band together to develop a vaccine for a disease like Covid-19 or to test a new theory of decision making, they begin as collaborators, not opponents. They know from the start that their differences—in knowledge, skills, and so on—are essential to a successful partnership rather than a “source of divisive tension,” says Gadlin.

Yet relationship conflicts can damage even the most fruitful collaborations. Take the famous partnership of Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, which began in 1969, as recounted by Michael Lewis in his book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. The two “brightest stars” of Hebrew University spent long hours together holed up in seminar rooms sharing ideas, writes Lewis: “From the other side of the door you could sometimes hear them hollering at each other, but the most frequent sound to emerge was laughter.” 

Tversky and Kahneman’s theories and research fundamentally changed the way we view human decision making. But as Tversky received more public credit for their groundbreaking contributions, resentment and frustration eventually grew between them. The collaboration unraveled, though the two made peace when Tversky was dying of cancer in 1996. The story illustrates both the difficulties and rewards of managing conflict in collaborations over time. 

Find Ways for Conflict to Flourish

“Separate the people from the problem,” wrote Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton in their best-selling book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. The guideline stresses the value of dealing with interpersonal conflict directly rather than letting it fester while tackling more substantive disagreements. 

Interpersonal and substantive conflict in long-standing collaborations is “not so easily separated,” writes Gadlin. For example, members of research teams are often “deeply identified with their ideas and methodologies,” he says. As a result, when someone disagrees with them, they may feel deeply threatened and easily take offense. On the flip side, “there can even be pleasure in disagreement,” as people engage in lively debate and push each other to their intellectual limits, as Tversky and Kahneman did. 

How to handle conflict in teams? Mutual trust is the key, according to Gadlin. When team members trust one another, they feel comfortable disagreeing, expressing emotion, and working through anger and hurt feelings. They also, crucially, come to view their differences and disagreements as strengths. Thus, trust-building activities, such as chatting about shared interests unrelated to the focus of your work, can help make your collaborations more durable.  

What advice do you have to offer on how to handle conflict in teams?

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