10 min read

The Power of Task Conflict: A Leader’s Guide on How to Build High-Performance Teams Through Constructive Disagreement

Can you nurture high-performing teams through constructive disagreement? Despite the common understanding, healthy conflicts at work can be exactly what a business needs if it wants to prevent project failures. Discover the difference between constructive and personal conflicts and how to use arguments to boost your team’s performance.
Written by
Mahira Chahine
Published on
May 10, 2024
Read time
10 min read

This story goes back to a few decades ago when Fred Gluck, a newcomer at McKinsey & Company, first encountered Marvin Bower, a life-long leader of McKinsey. When Bower asked Gluck about his first assignment, Gluck honestly told Bower he thought the partners were doing it all wrong. The next morning Bower called Gluck to his office. But instead of firing the new employee for questioning the partners’ strategy, Bower admitted that Gluck’s arguments were right and agreed to change the approach.

Only a handful of people dare to disagree because only a few leaders encourage that. But this is exactly what a company might need if it wants to prevent project failures.

The so-called “obligation to dissent” became one of the core values of McKinsey & Company, the most-known consulting firm in the world.

By letting employees argue and speak their minds freely, business leaders encourage healthy dissent which helps bring more ideas to the table and address possible issues. This managing technique is particularly important in software development where innovation thrives on diverse problem-solving approaches. Constructive conflict is what distinguishes high-performance teams – something we’ve been building at Modeso.

In this article, we are going to share what we know about nurturing high-performance teams through constructive disagreement. But first, let’s look closer at various types of conflicts in the workplace.

Constructive disagreement vs personal conflict

Many business leaders don’t encourage any sort of team conflict, often mistaking constructive disagreement for personal discord. In both types of conflicts, people express disagreement, but this is where their similarities end. In the first case, they argue about the project, while in the second they fight with each other.

Let’s briefly outline the difference between constructive and personal conflict.

With that said, let’s focus on the constructive conflict that might help your company speed up problem resolution and grow.

Don’t suppress. Encourage a culture of healthy conflicts

What a strong leader should do is not suppress constructive conflicts, but encourage and effectively manage them. By stimulating constructive disagreement where team members challenge each other’s ideas, business owners can improve team performance without ruining relationships in the team.

The idea of the positive nature of constructive conflict is also outlined in the book Think Again by Adam Grant, where the author distinguishes two types of conflicts – a task conflict (constructive) and a relationship conflict (personal).

According to Grant’s research, low relationship conflict and high task conflict are a characteristic of high-performance teams, as demonstrated here:


The situation is different in low-performing teams. Grant’s research shows that teams performing poorly usually have high relationship conflict and low task conflict. Being busy with personal animosity and quarrels, team members don’t focus on the project challenges and fail to effectively address them.


But if you want the task conflict to work for your team and not against it, you should understand the specific nature of this conflict.

For example, if you manage a cognitive task conflict, like what feature to prioritize for implementation, encourage open discussion and diverse perspectives within your team. But if we’re talking about a procedural conflict, for example, when choosing between OKR goals and SMART goals, a leader should ensure that all team members clearly understand both frameworks to provide feedback that is relevant and to the point.

For a better understanding, let’s analyze both types of conflicts in more detail.

Cognitive task conflict

Cognitive conflicts occur when people working on the same project have diverse backgrounds, expertise, or ways of thinking. This leads to varying opinions on how to approach a task or solve a problem. It’s a constructive type of conflict, as it encourages critical thinking, creativity, and consideration of alternative viewpoints, ultimately leading to better solutions.

For instance, let’s say a software development team is discussing the architectural design of a new software application. One team member votes for a microservices architecture, emphasizing its scalability and modularity which allows for easier maintenance and updates. Another team member offers a monolithic architecture, highlighting its simplicity and ease of deployment. The conflict makes the team engage in discussions, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and make an informed decision based on the project’s requirements and constraints.

Procedural task conflict

Procedural task conflict can arise from differing views on the most effective ways to carry out tasks, allocate resources, or make decisions. Imagine one team member (or a client) offering to use a traditional Waterfall approach which ensures each phase is completed before moving on to the next. However, another employee suggests adopting an Agile methodology, as it allows for iterative development, frequent feedback loops, and quicker response to customer needs. In this case, you need to make sure both parties have a clear understanding of Waterfall and Agile. Otherwise, the argument is pointless.  

When managed constructively, procedural conflicts can stimulate discussions about process improvement, increase team efficiency, and promote a sense of ownership among team members.

Be it a cognitive, procedural, or any other type of healthy conflict, it can potentially improve your team’s productivity and strengthen its cohesion. But a healthy task conflict doesn’t happen on its own and you need a clear strategy in place on how to use it to your benefit.

How to create a high-performing team through healthy dissent

A good leader must lay the foundation for constructive discussions within the team. Here are some tips on how to establish a work environment where employees easily jump into a constructive debate without getting personal.

Build psychological safety in the team

Psychological safety refers to fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns, without any fears. The fear of ruining a relationship or reputation as well as the fear of being considered ignorant or poorly qualified won’t let your team members speak their minds. If you want your people to freely debate and express their thoughts, you should create a safe work culture that promotes healthy task conflict and requires different opinions.

To achieve this, set a positive and welcoming tone for the discussion, encouraging active participation from all team members. Stress that your feedback as a leader is part of the discussion, and you’re not biased towards certain points of view. Make sure you carefully listen to all points of view, including the craziest ones, and express openness to diverse perspectives.

Ensure the task conflict is structured and organized

A heated discussion might easily turn into a meaningless argument, leading to misunderstandings, resentment, and poor productivity. To make the debate organized, you might set some rules for communication and behavior, such as speaking one at a time, listening without interruption, and refraining from personal attacks. When debating about some issue in the team, make your co-members explain their opinions highlighting how (rather than why) they are going to achieve their goal. When focusing on the why, people might become emotionally attached to their positions and reluctant to other points of view, which might escalate the tension.

To avoid chaos while debating, you should properly manage the process using collaborative methods, including:

  • Brainstorming. A creative-thinking technique where participants express diverse ideas without criticism or judgment. For example, brainstorming ideas on how to improve the user experience of an e-commerce application by introducing new features such as personalized product recommendations, a live chat or others.
  • Devil’s advocate. A decision-making technique where one or more individuals are assigned to question, challenge, or criticize prevailing assumptions or decisions. Let’s say a software development team is discussing whether to adopt a new technology stack for an upcoming project. One team member takes on the role of the devil’s advocate and challenges the proposed decision highlighting the risks involved in transitioning the entire development process to unfamiliar tools and frameworks.
  • Dialectical inquiry. A technique where a team is divided into two groups: for and against a specific decision. Teams debate discussing the advantages of their solutions and might switch roles after some time. This method works great when you need to solve a yes/no question or decide between two options.
  • Ranking. This technique might be used to prioritize what to focus on. For instance, you have ten ideas after the brainstorming session and need to narrow them down to three. Ask your team to rank the ideas and explain their choices.
  • Voting. It is a decision-making method you can employ when multiple options are under consideration, and a decision should be reached based on the principle of the majority rule.

Be the last to express your point of view

Being a team leader, you should be the last to speak when debating. Otherwise, you might unwillingly suppress opposing ideas coming from the team members. People might feel uncomfortable when expressing opinions that don’t align with the boss’ vision and prefer to agree or keep silent. Also, some employees might change their point of view once they hear constructive arguments from the leader. As a result, the pool of ideas will significantly decrease.

Therefore, you should listen to all your team members before articulating your ideas. Initiate the discussion with a short speech to encourage active participation, but refrain from immediately engaging in the debate. This way you won’t influence the direction of the discussion while also creating an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing different views.

Handle disagreements with respect

If you want to have a fruitful healthy task conflict within your team, treat differing opinions with respect and teach your team members to do the same. Listen attentively to the other person’s perspective without interrupting. Show that you value their viewpoint by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and asking open-ended questions. This shows that you’re genuinely interested in understanding their perspective and can help clarify any misunderstandings.

Respectful disagreement encourages employees to critically examine their own beliefs and consider alternative viewpoints. It also helps keep discussions focused on the task or problem at hand, rather than devolving into personal attacks or conflicts.

Understanding its benefits, many companies implement constructive disagreement within their teams. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Tech companies that encourage task conflict

Giants like Intel, Netflix, and Amazon are leading the tech market not just because of their innovative products and services, but also because of their approaches to fostering high-performance teams. These companies have recognized the power of diverse perspectives and open dialogue in driving innovation and creativity.


Amazon encourages task conflict through its “disagree and commit” principle. It’s one of Amazon’s 16 Leadership Principles, a set of guidelines for everyone working at the company. It’s also a framework for assessing potential candidates during the interview process.

Following the “disagree and commit” principle, everyone participating in the discussion can constructively disagree, but once the decision is made – all team members should commit to it and move forward. From that moment, they are in the same boat and should pull together regardless of whether they are for or against the decision taken.


One more example is Netflix. The company fosters a work culture of freedom and responsibility based on three pillars – high talent density, candor and transparency, and minimum control. For example, they encourage debates between executives, practice non-anonymized feedback days, implement a “stop, start, continue” feedback format (where a person tells another employee what they should stop, start, and continue doing), and demonstrate complete transparency when a company faces any challenges. By promoting the culture of “radical honesty,” Netflix emphasizes the importance of direct communication, where employees are encouraged to speak openly and truthfully, even if it means delivering difficult or uncomfortable feedback.


Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was known for employing the “constructive confrontation” problem-solving technique, which further became an integral part of the company’s culture. The idea is that everyone should freely express their opinion and directly confront ideas while maintaining respect, clarity, and honesty. Grove believed that if the idea survives a fierce discussion, it is the best idea.

By encouraging open dialogue and dissent, Intel cultivates an atmosphere where innovation is driven by the constant push and pull of differing viewpoints.

The management principles we’ve just discussed help look at the situation from different perspectives and make the decision-making process more effective. Of course, they don’t guarantee that the decision resulting from the exchange of views is right, but these are definitely valuable practices to finding the right one.

Bottom line

“It’s good to disagree” – a statement not everyone will agree with. When handled with respect and open-mindedness, a healthy task conflict builds a solid foundation for establishing a high-performing team. That is why, business leaders should be open to establishing a work culture where everyone is empowered to offer alternative solutions even if they go against a generally accepted vision of the team.

Promoting open communication and constructive dialogue is fundamental to how we approach projects at Modeso. We actively encourage team members to engage in discussions, share ideas, and provide constructive feedback throughout the project lifecycle. And what about you?

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