Conflict Contagion: A Virus to Watch and Treat Early

By Karsten Jonsen, Karen A. Jehn, Sonja Rispens and Lindred L. Greer

Conflicts are daily realities of organisational teams, and most people are aware of how they negatively impact an organisation’s performance. This article explores how managers can resolve conflicts, and why it’s important to do so as early as possible.

Conflicts can paralyse teams and crush performance‭, ‬yet few managers and executives realise how quickly they can spread to a devastating level‭. ‬Take John Sculley‭. ‬He admitted 27‭ ‬years after his conflict with Steve Jobs that he had been insensitive when‭ (‬not‭) ‬handling his conflict with Steve Jobs‭. ‬Sculley never gave Jobs a chance to save face‭, ‬and regretted it later‭.‬1‭ ‬It impacted the entire company as people took sides‭.‬

HP also lost its way with epic board conflicts starting from the 1990s, including a rather disastrous CEO-hiring only a few years ago and a dysfunctional top team: “Lane quickly established a committee – Apotheker, Babbio, McKesson, Hammergren, and himself – to decide which heads to lop off. The jockeying began almost instantly. Hammergren wanted to oust Salhany; in return, she viewed him as arrogant and egotistical. Most of the directors couldn’t stand Hyatt and pushed for him to be dumped. Three had refused to sit on committees with him; Andreessen had gone so far as to skip an entire board meeting so he wouldn’t have to be in the same room with Hyatt.”2

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While a conflict confined to two people may be positive for a team because it helps bring competing ideas to the surface, the final stages of a full-blown conflict negatively impact team interactions, performance, creativity, turnover and satisfaction. In bad cases, full conflicts can disrupt and destroy teams as they implode.




Conflicts are like viruses: Managers should recognise conflicts early, decide how to treat them, and recognise quickly which precautions to take to keep them from spreading.

 “Team performance rose, but some of the benefits will never be known, because of all the conflicts that never erupted to a full-blown scale,” said Nathalie Sedan. “A lot of what we did, we did because we want to make the workplace a better place for our employees and our clients.”

– Nathalie Sedan, Senior Team Leader, Hewlett-Packard.

John Sculley admitted 27 years after his conflict with Steve Jobs that he had been insensitive when (not) handling his conflict with Steve Jobs. Sculley never gave Jobs a chance to save face, and regretted it later. It impacted the entire company as people took sides.

Patterns of conflict, once established, never disappear on their own. Recently, executives responsible for the design of some of Apple Inc.’s most important products, including the iPhone, left the Cupertino, California-based company, amid widespread reports of internal conflict. The departures hit the media, and the executives were described as “ambitious” and “divisive.” In the case of one, designer Greg Christie, the departure came after the company had positioned him as an influential figure in the development of the iPhone. Judging from what we know about conflict, the departures probably came during the phase we call “partial contagion,” when coalitions have begun to form and damage team productivity. The same company endured a famous fallout in 1985, between Steve Jobs and John Sculley. That defining moment in the PC industry split the board and resulted in Apple’s co-founder’s demotion and subsequent departure from the company.


Steve pic


Conflicts and tensions are inevitable, especially in high-stakes situations where ambitious people are working together on big goals, and differences of opinions can be vital for problem solving and creativity:

“Differences, even strong differences of opinions between people can be very beneficial for any organisation, even when that goes together with some form of tension. However, it only works well when it is based on mutual respect and people who feel connected to each other.”

– Mads Ingholt, SVP Leadership Development, Mäersk Group.

Because task conflicts are considered helpful and personal conflicts quite the opposite.3 The problem is to ensure that the differences remain related to the task at hand and do not spillover to personal conflicts or ‘attacks,’ to then spread throughout a team.

What can managers – or we ourselves, as team members – do to keep it from spiralling? Management of conflicts in organisations is rooted in diagnoses and interventions.4 To develop good interventions, we must know how, more precisely, conflicts spread throughout a team, any team.

Conflicts are like viruses: Managers should recognise conflicts early, decide how to treat them, and recognise quickly which precautions to take to keep them from spreading.

We have found, throughout many years of research and working with companies, that unless managers act quickly, a conflict can spread within weeks or days – or even faster – to an entire team. Unresolved conflicts never fade: Like herpes, they stay with a team forever, and can erupt at any point. It’s important for all managers to realise that a conflict always starts in a dyad, tension between two people, and may escalate to parts of the team and eventually the entire team.

Research analysis showed us that once conflict is initiated, it will go through three stages: The first stage is coalition building by the original team members who cannot agree on how to proceed. Conflicts are, in fact, likely to catalyse or activate coalitions that do not already exist or are not salient. The second stage is when other team members are infected through a process of emotional contagion. When negative emotions arise from interpersonal conflict within a team, mainly due to perceived incompatibilities, these emotions spread easily – and more easily than pleasant emotions do. The third stage is marked by a growing conviction by previously unaffected team members that they need to join the conflict, taking sides in order to protect their own interests or the outcome of the project. This stems from the interdependency that is inherent to teams, as opposed to people working individually. Team members naturally feel responsibility and concern for other team members, the organisation and the outcome.

These stages lead to behavioural conflict involvement as we show in the Figure above. Our new model for conflict escalation illuminates how conflicts are broadcast to other team members through the behaviour of team members already involved.

Managers should consider many different factors when they are thinking about the speed and intensity with which a conflict will develop and spread: team composition, power relations, personality types, task type and interdependence, networks, team size, the nature of the conflict and its importance, and the proximity of team members.

Consider a typical conflict in a corporate boardroom. One team member proposes an idea. Another team member disagrees. Other team members hear this disagreement, but have not yet voiced opinions or taken sides – their level of involvement is low. The conflict is primarily a dyadic, interpersonal conflict between the member with the idea and the member disagreeing.

At the next team meeting, these same two members continue to disagree. One member, who is a personal friend of the member who presented the idea, jumps into the debate, providing the first example of conflict contagion. An initial conflict involving only a few members begins to infect other members. Another member, after weighing the arguments of both sides, eventually decides that the member presenting the counter-argument has the strongest case and endorses that side. Clear coalitions begin to emerge.

However, there could still be members who are not yet drawn into the conflict. They might not yet care enough to become involved or may not even be aware of the conflict. At this point, there is a moderate level of conflict involvement within the team, but the conflict has not yet reached the team level: Differing levels of involvement in the conflict still exist.

As these factions begin to take sides on other issues – outside the original point of conflict – tensions may begin to flare between subgroups. These negative feelings (vibes) may spread, infecting even the members who had tried to hold their distance from the conflict. Even initially uninvolved members could begin to display conflict behaviors, such as arguing, raising their voices, and slamming doors. As the conflict contagion continues, issues that could affect outcomes for all team members, such as fairness, may become more salient. When that happens, the remaining team members may get involved, bringing about a full intra-team conflict.

We developed five recommendations to help people manage team conflict.

• If there is a conflict on your team, assume that it will spread. Conflict always starts between two people, but it often doesn’t stay there. One-on-one conflict turns into partial contagion when other team members take sides. Sometimes, they do so around a goal. At other times, personal relationships or ambitions come into play. If you notice a conflict spreading and pulling team members in for reasons other than pure task opinions – in other words, people are siding with friends or are using the conflict to push personal agendas – it’s probably time to intervene. A well-timed lunch or no-holds-barred meeting could help. A re-organisation to separate the warring parties, but one not one seen as a demotion by either, is another option.

• Don’t assume you have plenty of time. Our experience is that conflict can arise between two people and spread within weeks, days, hours, or even less.

1. At the partial contagion level, the conflict already is taking a moderate toll on team outcomes. Some team members who are least comfortable with conflict may begin to check out, physically or intellectually.

2. Once a conflict spreads to an entire team, it becomes impossible for anyone to stay out of the conflict. When conflicts reach that stage, the work at hand, the raison d’etre for the team, is suffering immensely.

Before you intervene, try to understand the real issue. For each person, the fight might be about something different, and you may hear different takes on the level of conflict. Perhaps it is a personal slight, from a year ago, that still rankles. Or, most likely in a high-powered team of ambitious executives, one or both people could be trying leverage up by pushing the other person down. We have found that process conflict, which involves conflict over such seemingly mundane matters such as where a meeting will be held, is often a sign of an underlying power struggle. The worst, non-productive, conflicts are always affective and personal ones where there is animosity, as opposed to conflicts related to the task at hand and possible solutions to a problem. Be particularly alert to the former kinds of conflict early on and create an ethos based on mutual respect, inclusion and commitment to superordinate goals.

Consider physically separating team members. Conflicts spread via emotional contagion – and while we are not discounting the fact that emotion might spread virtually due to unfiltered messages (i.e. on Facebook, email or social media) – research suggests that emotional contagion happens more readily when people are physically together. Groups working remotely were less likely to fall prey to dysfunctional conflict. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind still works.

Be aware of your own biases and weaknesses. Leadership always starts within you. Research suggests that when people intervene in a conflict, they often end up siding with one of the parties, exacerbating the coalition effect. Know when to delegate the intervention to a more neutral party. People within your company who are skilled at conflict resolution, naturally or by training, are a huge asset. You may also benefit from knowing, and using, different styles of handling interpersonal conflict, such as integrating, dominating, avoiding, withdrawing, compromising and problem solving.

Open-minded discussions in a climate of trust and psychological safety precede most good approaches and decisions. Managers who help their teams see beyond personal issues and positioning, put superordinate goals ahead, whether the goals are for the organisation, the community, or society.

This article is based on the award winning paper “Conflict contagion: A temporal multi-level perspective on the development of conflict within teams”, published in International Journal of Conflict Management, with Karen E. Jehn, Sonja Rispens, Karsten Jonsen, and Lindred Greer. Vol. 4, 2013

About the Authors

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow in organisational behaviour at IMD (Switzerland). His research interests include conflicts in organisations, team performance, virtual teams, stereotyping, cosmopolitanism, cross-cultural communication, and workforce diversity.

Karen A. Jehn is a professor of organisation behaviour at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on group processes and performance, conflict, and asymmetry of perceptions.

Sonja Rispens is an assistant professor of organisational psychology at Eindhoven University of Technology (the Netherlands). Her research focuses on conflicts and deviant behaviours in the workplace.

Lindred L. Greer is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her research focuses on issues related to power and conflict in teams.



2. J. Bandler and D. Burke, “How HP lost its way”, Fortune, Vol. 165, Issue 7, (2012).

3. See for example: F. De Wit, L.L. Greer and K.A. Jehn (2012), “The paradox of intragroup conflict: a meta-analysis”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 97 No. 2 (2012), pp. 360-390; L.L. Greer and K.A. Jehn, “The pivotal role of emotion in intragroup process conflict”, Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Vol. 10, (2007), pp. 23-45; K.A. Jehn, “A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 40, (1995), pp. 256-282; Jehn, K.A., “Qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions in organizational groups”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 42, (1997), pp. 530-557; S. Rispens, “The influence of conflict issue importance on the co-occurrence of task and relationship conflict in teams”, Applied Psychology: An International Review, Vol. 61 No. 3 (2012), pp. 349-367.

4. M.A. Rahim, “Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict.” The International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 13: (2002), pp. 206-235.




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