Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict

by Amy Edmondson, Diana Smith

Fall 2006

Volume 49
Issue 1

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Conventional wisdom, together with the weight of published management advice, recommends that management teams engage task conflict directly but avoid relationship conflict. Implicit in this advice is the premise that it is indeed possible to separate the task and relationship aspects of a business conflict. This article argues that this separation is not always possible for management teams. When teams discuss “hot topics,” substantive disagreements (task conflicts) tend to trigger negative attributions about others’ motives or abilities (a key element of relationship conflicts). When this happens, most managers suppress their true thoughts, thus avoiding genuine discussion. Yet, when interpersonal attributions are suppressed, they tend to leak into the business conversation anyway, such as in the form of implied accusations or aggravated tones of voice. These dynamics are virtually inevitable, even when managers try hard to avoid them. Making a distinction between “hot” and “cool” topics can help clarify when avoiding discussion of relationship conflict in management teams is feasible and when it’s not. In addition, management teams facing hot topics need to learn to handle relationship conflicts productively, despite the heightened emotions and interpersonal tensions associated with them.

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