Functional vs. Dysfunctional Conflict in a Project

Understanding how to frame conflict within a project can make you a better developer. Conflict within a project team sounds like a bad thing, but sometimes conflict can be beneficial.

Functional vs. Dysfunctional Conflict in a Project

As developers, we often work on projects with teams of people. Believe it or not, people do not always get along. Developers might not agree with UI, ops might not agree with developers, and developers might not agree with one another! Understanding how to frame conflict within a project can make you a better developer and teammate. In this short post, I look at the two types of conflict and how they can be used to increase project effectiveness.

On the surface, conflict within a project team sounds like a bad thing. However, in some cases, conflict can lead to a more effective project and better outcome. If a conflict leads to furthering the objectives of a project without damaging future productivity capabilities, it can be classified as functional.

In essence, conflict is okay when it results in better project outcomes but not when it inhibits team members’ ability to work together effectively.

The level and style of conflict that falls within the dysfunctional category can depend on the culture and maturity of the team members. In some cultures, using profanity generously is the norm, while in other cultures or in other companies, that would be considered unprofessional and offensive. Alternatively, one team member might not respond well to feedback, or another member might not be good at giving constructive feedback. Either way leads to dysfunctional conflict.

Project managers can encourage functional conflict by designating a team member as the devil’s advocate and protecting contrarians. Having a devil’s advocate ensures that even if the team is in total agreement, contrasting viewpoints will be considered. Functional conflict is valuable because it enables everyone’s viewpoints to be considered and evaluated. If everyone agrees, the project will suffer from a lack of diverse viewpoints. A devil’s advocate can help fix this issue by highlighting “the other side” of every problem.

Going further, in project teams, a phenomenon known as groupthink may occur when, either through peer pressure or the curse of knowledge, a team becomes too cohesive. Designating a devil's advocate ensures that someone brings to the table a variety of options to consider when making a decision, encouraging functional conflict and overall team growth.

That's all for now!