Conflict in teams – where does it originate and how does it develop?

Often we label whole teams as being problematic and conflictive, but findings from this set of studies by Priti Pradhan Sha[3] and colleagues show that we need to look in more detail than this.

The researchers explored the following possible origins of conflict in teams:

  • Individual (there is a particularly difficult individual in the team)
  • Dyadic (pairs of members are in conflict with each other)
  • Subgroups (different factions or subgroups are in conflict with each other)
  • Team (most team members are in conflict with each other)

They found that dyadic conflict was the most widespread, with whole team conflict being relatively rare. This means that different team members will typically have different experiences of conflict within their team, with some being involved in it and others simply observers. This can account (at least partially) for members’ different evaluations of conflict within their team.

The researchers distinguished between task conflict and relationship conflict and also studied how each of these types of conflict developed over time (T1, T2, T3). As can be seen from the chart below:

  • Conflict between pairs of team members was much more prevalent than individual, subgroup or team conflict;
  • For pairs of team members, relationship conflict was more frequent than task conflict and did not reduce as much over time as task conflict;
  • There was a tendency for individual conflict to increase somewhat over time, for both task and relationship conflict

This indicates that particular attention needs to be paid to problems between pairs of individuals in teams, and especially in terms of relationships.

Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey, Director


[1] Shah, P. P., Peterson, R. S., Jones, S. L., & Ferguson, A. J. (2021). Things are not always what they seem: The origins and evoluation of intragroup conflict Administrative Science Quarterly, 66(2), 426–474. doi:10.1177/0001839220965186