Doing Group Work? Don’t Be Afraid to Fight With Your Colleagues

Clashes over who's in charge of what can help teams find better ways to delegate responsibility.

When you’re working on a group project, tensions are bound to surface. But for many people, it seems wisest to swallow frustrations about your teammates’ decisions and avoid getting into a debate about who should be in charge of what.

But a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that these kinds of clashes can actually be quite valuable. The study explored the effect of status conflicts—that is, questioning other people’s authority or competence—on group work. It found that status conflict can actually improve a team’s productivity and work outcome. But the benefit depends upon the structure of your organization.

Status conflicts typically stem from concern over one’s relative position in a group or team, according to Corinne Bendersky, a management and organizations professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who co-authored the study. The root emotion motivating the conflict is usually feeling undervalued or disrespected—two “very hot human emotions.” That means disagreements can get pretty ugly.

Past research shows that in a hierarchical organization, where everyone’s pretty clear about how they rank compared to their peers, status conflicts are disruptive. Questioning one another’s authority just winds up discouraging people from sharing information with each other, distracting teammates from their shared task, and destabilizing the group’s understanding of who’s in charge, and why.

But the new study suggests that in a flatter organization—like, say, nearly every startup—status conflicts can actually improve team performance.

“Without status conflict, hierarchy usually emerges out of heuristic signals like gender or dominant behavior,” says Bendersky. But a person’s gender, or how much they like to talk at meetings, often has little correlation with their actual competency. So if there’s not much clarity about the pecking order, it can be useful to tackle the question head-on.

“In low-hierarchy teams, social conflicts help members attend more carefully and in more detail to the explicit metrics or criteria by which they will assign status and influence,” Bendersky explains. In other words, explicit discussions about the best way to delegate responsibilities will prompt the group to consider important factors like, say, “past experience” or “digital design knowledge.” After going through this process, they’re more likely to assign status based on competency.

This report consisted of three field studies. Two involved groups of MBA students working on team projects, in which hierarchy was not assigned. The other study observed employees at a mid-sized internet company in the US, which was already organized into work teams.

Bendersky found that nearly every team experienced some form of status conflict—ranging from confusion over who should do what to direct confrontations. In teams that already understood the basic hierarchy, more status conflicts did correlate with weak performance. However, in teams with relatively low agreement about hierarchy, more status conflict actually improved team performance—as measured by the grade student groups received or the quality of employees’ work product.

The upshot? It’s never going to be a smart idea to insult your teammates’ writing or PowerPoint presentation skills. But if you’re working in a flat organization, consider encouraging an forum to discuss the values and criteria your group will use to designate responsibility and recognize and reward those who excel. Directly discussing status can be awkward—but it can also be the key to individual and team success.