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Team innovation and success: why we should fight at work

When your staff bicker and compete, your initial response should be to remind them they’re part of the same team and encourage them to be friendly, right? Not necessarily; we’re now realising that a level…

Feeling threatened drives team members to highlight their distinguishing attributes. Omar Gurnah/ Flickr

When your staff bicker and compete, your initial response should be to remind them they’re part of the same team and encourage them to be friendly, right? Not necessarily; we’re now realising that a level of tension and hostility can actually make teams more effective.

Organisations are increasingly bringing together teams of employees from different parts of the organisation to apply a broad range of relevant skills towards complicated tasks. Over time, these teams can suffer from an over-reliance on shared knowledge and fail to share and discuss points of difference.

This is where conflict can help. When team members are asked to be critical and norms of conflict emerge in a group, members are more likely to share their specialised information, which enhances team performance.

Apples and oranges

Interdisciplinary teams are particularly common in health care, which has been the focus of my research. Teams made up of different professions such as doctors, nurses, dietitians and pharmacists have been shown to improve clinical care, reduce medications per patients and reduce admission to hospital and emergency wards. They’re also likely to be more innovative and more effective than homogeneous teams.

Benefits are also seen outside the health-care industry, with research demonstrating that teams of professionals such as engineers, architects and surveyors are able to decrease costs and design more creative products.

Bringing together different professions poses significant challenges including friction and breakdown in communication. This is explained by theories such as the similarity-attraction paradigm: we tend to like and work effectively with people who we perceive as similar to ourselves – at work this is often based on profession – and dislike people who we see as different.

The typical approach to this dilemma has been to charge leaders with minimising negative dynamics and boosting positive aspects of team interaction. But it is very difficult to reduce the sources of conflict that cause hostility, such as differences in professional status and values.

When team interaction is characterised by tension and hostility, their work can be more effective. Marco Gomes/ Flickr

When team members perceive a threat to their profession, such as pressure to compromise on their profession’s priorities or change their professional approach, teams are more innovative. When team interaction is characterised by tension and hostility, their work can be more effective.

This seems counter-intuitive, but our findings do not advise a team climate that is overwhelmingly hostile and characterised by threat. Successful leadership requires the ability to create a tension between positive and negative dynamics.

Leadership style

Transformational leaders are known to have high expectations and like to set goals and lead by example. They’re also thought to be well-suited to teamwork.

Yet, while these leaders can increase motivation to work across occupational boundaries, this focus on cooperation can lead to premature consensus and conformity. When this occurs, we found that negative mood (reflecting hostility, upset and tension) can provide an effective counter. Negative mood signals to the team that something is wrong, promoting team members to question existing ideas and rely less on assumptions.

In the absence of negative mood, the motivation to work cooperatively reduces effectiveness, but a tension between cooperation and hostility enhances performance.

The same tension between positive and negative dynamics enhances other styles of leadership. Inclusive leaders strive to assure team members that their individual voices and unique perspectives will be valued.

But while creating a participative climate allows team members to express their viewpoints, it may not motivate them to do so. The capacity of inclusive leaders to engender innovation is dependent on whether team members perceive a threat to their profession. Feeling threatened drives members to advocate the distinguishing attributes of their profession’s position.

It is the tension between feeling included and feeling threatened that motivates teams to find a solution that incorporates diverse and dissenting viewpoints and increases the likelihood of innovation. When teams appear to move towards compromise at the expense of dissent and critical analysis, negative mood and conflict may introduce a useful tension.

But managers should be cautious about engendering such moods, which have also been linked to team failure. One approach with potential for encouraging conflict within safe parameters is through interventions such as devil’s advocacy which direct dissent to task-related, rather than personal, issues.

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42 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Just what we need - more levels of tension & hostility in the workplace.

    Encouraging an amount of productive tension in any work group might be great for productivity for a while, but sooner or later those little niggles will turn into great big smoldering resentments.

    To engender an atmosphere of even a slight amount of tension & hostility simply for a productive business gain is not only the height of arrogance, but a tactic aimed at the lowest levels of human behaviour.

    1. John Campbell


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes what sort of neo-con bullshit is this. We nearly all spend a considerable amount of time in our workplaces the last thing we need is stress and unpleasantness.

      Sounds like typical neo-con rubbish, capitalism and democracy are extricably linked and the only important measures for society is productivity and making money.

      Not to mention the I'd hate to think how much time is wasted in interminable boring meetings which usually end up with a few trying to show their self importance and little else.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      There is a difference between fighting and having a disagreement and I think the author is just blurring that line in order to write an article

      the idea that direct hostility towards co-workers could be beneficial is insane

    3. Dr Caroline Wright

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I agree with you Stephen as such an environment will not only increase stress it can lead to the formation of cliques and destruction of individuals.

      In such a work environment where is there room for the formation of nurturing mentor relationships when leaders promote competition between professional peers?

  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I would further add that it may jeopardise the health of workers. It could be great for those who thrive on a level of workplace tension, but disastrous for those who are unable to work in a hostile environment.

  3. George Sawyer


    There seems to be enough anxiety (in the work environment) to trigger great stress in some individuals., While it is true that stress and confrontation can be helpful to the corporation, I would rather arrive at monetary gain by more civilized means.

  4. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    Having worked in both homogeneous teams and heterogeneous teams , heterogeneous teams have always performed better in terms of innovativeness. However I wouldn’t say this was because we felt the need to speak-up for our professional position out of fear. I suspect it was because the assumptions of knowledge had to be articulated and other persuaded of its merits. Being among others with different professional skills I think also heightens awareness of our own skills and the desire to keep them…

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  5. Louise Robinson -Lay

    Head of Curriculum

    It's an interesting one. I can see how different skill sets and viewpoints would make a team more effective but hostility and tension seems to me to be damaging and counterproductive. I have watched team members who don't agree and are unhappy with situations simply join forces and split the culture down the middle. They have then actively worked against the rest of the team. I guess to a large degree it depends on the individuals but I am not convinced that tension is always a driving force for innovation based on my experience. We ended up with silos and people felt that they could not air their viewpoints as readily because of fear of ridicule.

    1. John Campbell


      In reply to Louise Robinson -Lay

      It is well known that people under tension and stress do not work at their full potential. This can be seen ,for example, when people are faced with the threat of fire. To operate at any reasonable level in these circumstances much training and practice is required which is why they stress the importance of practicing your fire plan.

  6. Richard Hanssens


    Are we mistaking tension and hostility for the abilty to promote critical thinking. If a team is able to provide constructive dialogue which at times may be conflict with others in team, does it not depend on how the conflict is managed. Such as having respect for a range of views and good listening skills.

    1. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Richard Hanssens

      Richard - you idiot! JUST JOKING, actually just wanted to say that I concur with your thoughts on this. I also think it would be interesting to hear Rebecca actually define what she sees as hostility and what levels she believes are helpful and acceptable.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Richard Hanssens

      You nailed it, this author is just trying to write an article and to make it more contencious she has blurred hostility and fighting with confrontation and critical thinking - none of which needs to be hostile or violent

      else North Korea would be the most innovative place on earth

  7. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    When working as the creative director of a large advertising agency, the company was taken over by an imposed CEO who was, i have since concluded, an out of control sociopath (I use the term in its popular sense). He later drove the company to its knees, but this story is from his first months on the job.

    His 'executive suite' was several floors above the creative department, which he never visited, always summoning ups to rise to his level. Then, one day, he appeared at my office door, clutching…

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    1. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to John Newton

      Interesting experience. I was designer in a corporate design firm around that time, run by a successful team of art director and copy writer who saw the benefit of occasional recreational breaks, celebrating successes and laughter. Our list of clients seemed proof of the success of this congenial creative environment.

    2. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to John Newton

      I'm with you on this one, John.

      I don't buy the take-home message on this article, which bad managers (and corporate culture only seems to breed and elevate bad managers) will receive as fiat to keep their team feeling 'threatened'.

      I've worked in two team environments.

      One was as a nurse. The bottom line was the patient. The patient had to receive the best and most appropriate care. Full stop. At the end of a hell twelve-hour shift, this could be achieved by remembering they were…

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    3. Richard Hanssens


      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Good analysis Ben! I also believe the fun element of work decision making/interactions is often underrated but can lead to innovation.

  8. Ian J. Faulks

    NRMA-ACT Road Safety Trust Research Scholar, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety (CARRS-Q) at Queensland University of Technology

    A very, very optimistic view of the workplace, Rebecca! (I refer readers to John Croucher's article on "what makes a good teacher" as a more cheery read.)
    The problem with this article, however, is that there is no mention of bullying . . . so the danger here is that by suggesting that tension & hostility in the workplace can be good, it just opens the door for the bullies to justify their behaviour as normal and reasonable.

    1. John Campbell


      In reply to Ian J. Faulks

      Agreed Ian and it also ensures that the more sensitive are unlikely to provide much, if anything at all to such discussions for fear of being belittled.

      Fear tends to encourage mistakes, by hindering clear thinking and the whole scenario can be self perpetuatingly bad.

  9. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    While working as the creative director of a large international advertising agency in the 1980s, a CEO was imposed on us by (US head office. He was a sociopath (I use the term in its popular application) who eventually drove the company to its knees. But this story relates to his first months on the job.

    He never visited the creative department. If he wanted to see me or any of the creatives, he would summon us upstairs to his executive suite. One day I received just such a summons.

    I arrived…

    Read more
  10. John Bradbury

    Company Owner Director

    "When team interaction is characterised by tension and hostility their work can be more effective”
    I don't think so, not I'm my experience.
    Effective collaboration doesn't mean harmony. It means holding a point of view whilst hearing other perspectives and finding creative solutions.
    The challenge is in having an environment where team members feel confident enough to share their point of view.
    Do you think an atmosphere of conflict and tension creates that environment?

  11. Dianna Arthur


    "It is the tension between feeling included and feeling threatened that motivates teams to find a solution that incorporates diverse and dissenting viewpoints and increases the likelihood of innovation. When teams appear to move towards compromise at the expense of dissent and critical analysis, negative mood and conflict may introduce a useful tension."

    This method is a tool for fast results rather than long term achievement.

    Not the method used for establishing successful polar or space missions…

    Read more
  12. Rebecca Mitchell

    Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at University of Newcastle

    Our findings did not suggest that high levels of hostility or upset were always useful. What they did suggest however was that, particularly in teams where there was a tendency for members to want to work together cooperatively, that a moderate level of negative mood increased the likelihood of innovation. We interpreted this as being because negative mood often signals that something is wrong and tends to increase the use of objective, external information. Our study highlighted that there may be a risk in harmony, which can lead to premature consensus. In a very harmonious environment, it can be difficult to disagree or present an opposing view. We found that negative mood minimizes this risk, particularly for teams in which there was a cooperative dynamic to begin with.

    1. Richard Hanssens


      In reply to Rebecca Mitchell

      I note your research was in health care and focused on multi-disciplinary teams of different professions. Point taken that the article is not supporting working high levels of hostility. I assume your studied teams had a shared goal-delivery of care to their patients. Although there may be conflicting values around status it is unlikely to be about core values. Therefore you would expect a high degree of cooperation. However, you note the issue is around where conformity becomes a dominant value of the team dynamic at the expense of dissent and critical analysis. I think it was the first line of your article which I questioned "Bicker and compete". This may be an indication of a more passive/aggressive approach to team dynamics which can be difficult to manage where agendas are conflicted. Then the hostility and tension is unlikely to result in innovation. But thank you for initiating debate around this issue.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Rebecca Mitchell

      Your comment here was more enlightening than your article

      this seems to be a theme in the conversation where the author will post some sort of rubbish and the response in the comments - by the same author is far better than the original article

      your article does suggest that hostility is productive

      when in actual fact you mean something completely more baise and almost common sense

      As a software tester, I get frustrated when things don't work and it drives me to solve the problem - that is completely different from being hostile

      I can confront my work mates very directly and say to them "You are only 100% wrong about this" - without being hostile, without offending them

    3. John Campbell


      In reply to Rebecca Mitchell

      If there is anything in your article at all is that teams can become complacent, or lazy or self congratulatory or combinations of all three and require some sort of input to break that mould.

      I would suggest that a 'kick up the bum' IE creating tension may work, at often the expense of the recipients well being, for a short while but will be detrimental in the long term.

      Getting someone(s) to actively engage with groups and stretch their thinking in a co-operative, non-threatening and friendly manner would appear to be more productive in the long term. There are many ways to achieve this.

    4. Michael Hay


      In reply to Rebecca Mitchell

      I think, Rebecca, that you need to re-analyse your data. I cannot agree that even a minor level of resentment is good for productive thinking.
      The most effective technique I have experienced was where the five field officers sat down with the Branch Head each Monday morning and created a discussion. Importantly, the session began with written report, setting out what we done in the previous week and what problems we had encountered. These reports prompted discussion and the recalling of similar situations by other members of the group.
      I might add that the discussions never got heated - we respected one-another's points of view and kept the discussions to the all-important technical aspects.
      Dissension: Negativity: Self Promotion: !! No Way, Rebecca.

  13. Joy Whitton

    Project Manager at Monash University

    Strikes me as naive and lacking nuanced understanding of the different kinds of tension and different effects on different people.
    Like many others below, I've worked in both creative and negative work environments and I know which brings out my strengths. However we need alot more and better quality evidence and not more opinion.
    Research in creativity finds that openness to risk and error is necessary foundation to creativity. So is a blend of imaginative and critical thinking. I find that literature more convincing. They seem to counter the viewpoint presented here.

  14. Jim KABLE


    Rebecca M: I am wondering exactly how many of these hostile "teams" become-creatively-successful in which you have been one of the happy members? I have worked the most productively and with much development of my professional skills in teams which were co-operative and professionally stimulating - especially in broader teams where different skills and knowledge were brought together - and although finding some of that in situations where the leaders were quite clearly bullies - everyone unsure of…

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  15. account deleted

    logged in via email

    An interesting piece, thanks. The comments have been interesting as well.

    It seems to me that the basic premise of the piece is not at all controversial. However, there is a downside risk in creating such a working environment, which is that it is somewhat unstable and requires much more finely-tuned management than the type of workplace which has become the current norm, where the removal of that creative tension is at the heart of every policy and line managers are essentially just clerks filling…

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  16. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    The employer uses all these types of tactics to get the most out of an employee and still want more!

    Workers need to support each other at work instead of trying to step on each other thinking that their employer will elevate them to a better or higher paying position.

  17. Comment removed by moderator.

  18. Doug Rankin


    I know this is off topic sort-of. I worked for a boss who was either NPD or APD once, this usually led to fear and to get the job done you often had to consult other staff (who hated him too). You had three things in common: a common hate, a common objective and fear. Often the job got done for these reasons.

    1. Brooke Berry

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Rankin

      Sounds like this forced a camaraderie, which I'd see as the opposite of the approach in this article.

  19. Brooke Berry

    logged in via Facebook

    I'd be interested in the methodology of your research. And I'm not sure if you understand your subjects. I am in health care, and I work in multi-disciplinary teams. I have been known to joke that the best meetings / seminars are where there is some "argy-bargy". What a reader of your article might miss, though, is that this is a reflection of intelligent, passionate people expressing diverse opinion. We often go through phases before reaching consensus. Without the underlying respect, loyalty and good humour, these exchanges probably wouldn't happen as people would focus on protecting themselves rather than sharing ideas. I had a psychologist express surprise at how caring and close our lab group was in our "retrenchment seminar", seeing as scientists are so introverted and negative. Just because we don't come across as always "chipper" doesn't mean we're any less supportive of each other.

    1. Michael Paton

      Honorary Associate School of Economics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Brooke Berry

      Thank you for this insight Brooke. As I read the article, the methodology also came to my mind.

      Having worked in a faculty of economics, which became a faculty of economics and business, and is now a business school (after the business-minded got rid of economics because the economists wouldn't agree to research & teach only business economics), I am left to wonder how & why a business & law academic is researching team work in health care. After all, health care is not primarily a business. Business is merely a lubricant of society; it is not its basis.

      As a philospher of science, I have long argued for the power of negative thinking, but this does not equate with any fostering of hostility as implied by the title of this article.

  20. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Group think has caused enormous damage to organizations. At its center is the idea that consensus is god and that anyone who doesn't support the group think needs to be got rid of.
    Then there are the smooth operators that are good at using teamspeak to sideline and suppress those who don't agree with them.
    My personal experience is that my ideas are improved (or dumped) when there is someone who is making a strong argument against what I am saying.
    Sure, there are personality clashes, power plays etc that really are destructive. However, doing something about clashes that have become toxic should be seen as a last resort, not the default reponse to any hint of disagreement.

  21. Gwyneth Graham

    Consultant at Gwyneth Graham Consulting

    I really disagree with this article. I have worked for more than 20 years with leaders and teams in a number of large corporates and have found that negative environments such as described do not encourage innovation. Differences and diversity in teams and strong debate from very different points of view are important contributions to innovation. However when there is a negative environment I have found that people either tend to reduce their contribution or engage in dysfunctional behaviour to ensure…

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  22. Yoron Hamber


    Original research, may I summaries it?

    "The whip and the carrot" beloved since the ancients. A conservative approach to reality, maximizing profits, ignoring people.

    1. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      My spelling leaves some to be considered. 'summarize it', not 'summaries'. And no, creating friction is not what has worked best it Sweden, we have a long practice of working together in groups. If you have innovative guys then they will be innovative, any which way.
      It's probably somewhat of a existential question too :)
      As maybe? Why do you think you're are alive? To be a good producer, and as good a consumer?

      I think I'll take the hitchhiker guide, any day, before that vision.