Conflict within teams is generally something to avoid. It can lower morale, make collaboration more difficult, and hurt performance.
This is especially true for conflicts over status—disputes regarding who deserves more or less esteem and deference. Squabbling over who went to the better college and other types of one-upmanship are usually not going to help a team design a better widget.
But a paper by UCLA Anderson’s Corinne Bendersky and Michigan State’s Nicholas Hays suggests that, in some cases, a conflict over status can result in a team that’s more effective and successful.
The key, according to the paper, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is whether a team starts out in agreement about the relative status of its members. If a team initially agrees about status roles, a conflict—when members try to promote themselves or undermine the leadership of others—can shatter that consensus and lead to a dysfunctional, underperforming team.
But when members initially differ about status, a clash can be beneficial. Members can reassess the original pecking order and unite around new, and perhaps more relevant, reasons for assigning status. And these teams, the study suggests, perform better.
A lack of formal hierarchy is common in today’s work teams, where members come together in an ad hoc fashion and, frequently, are working together for the first time. Status is assigned on the fly, based on apparent and sometimes irrelevant cues: a person’s title, gender, or age, or whether he or she has a dominant personality. When this happens, it’s easy for team members to settle on different cues and to have differing views of each other’s place in the hierarchy.
Conflicts over status can arise whether or not members are in general agreement, and these disputes are fairly common, as Bendersky and Hays found in an earlier paper. In a study of MBA students, the authors recorded 259 conflicts in a 10-week semester, nearly half of which involved status in some form. The disputes could be incredibly trivial; in one case, two members of a team squabbled over who went to the better high school.
To find out how status conflicts affect a team’s productivity, Bendersky and Hays, in the new study, looked at MBA students working on team projects. In one study, they asked students at the start of a project to rank the status of each team member based on how much respect, prestige, and esteem they command. The authors then calculated how much members agreed about each other’s status. In a second survey, they measured how much status conflict they reported (a sample statement: “My team members competed for influence”). The authors then looked at final grades to see how the teams performed.
A second study surveyed students at three points in time. Researchers assessed how much the teams agreed or disagreed about members’ status at the beginning and the end of the project, and measured members’ perception of conflict in the middle.
The results of both studies indicated that higher grades were more common when status conflicts arose in groups that began their project with little agreement about the team hierarchy. Teams that began with more agreement about status found that conflict disrupted that consensus, producing greater disagreement about members’ status ranking. Those teams posted lower grades.
The authors also explored how conflict can affect the cues teams use to decide who merits respect and deference. Surveying teams at a mid-sized internet company, they asked members to grade colleagues on how competent they seemed, and then rated them on their status in the group. Members also were asked about the amount of conflict on their teams.
The researchers found when teams agreed about their status ranking, more conflict meant less consensus about members’ level of competence. The opposite was also true: agreement about competence was higher when a team held differing views about its hierarchy and experienced lots of status conflict.
This suggests, the authors say, that conflicts cause members to rethink their reasons for assigning status. For groups that are generally in agreement, conflicts over status can lead to greater discord, with some members siding with the upstarts and others sticking with the status quo. But when team members have different views about the pecking order, conflicts can bring to light qualities, like competence, that are more relevant to the team’s assignment and that the team can coalesce around.
Bendersky and Hays suggest there’s a practical lesson for leaders: It pays to push a team to agree about its status hierarchy, even if it requires conflict to get there. “Although actually fomenting status conflict to assist the team’s process of coming to an agreement about the status hierarchy poses risks,” they write, “knowing the potential benefits status conflicts could generate may relieve leaders’ anxiety if those conflicts do occur.”
This article originally appeared in the UCLA Anderson Review.