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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 15, 2019


Great teams manage task, process and relationships. They ask key questions to ensure clarity is built and conflict is addressed in all three areas. This week we look at some key questions you can use to audit your teams and build their effectiveness.



Hello and welcome to episode 60 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. Episode 60 is quite the milestone, so a big thanks to everyone who has shared the podcast with others. I love reading your reviews and hearing stories about how the content has been helpful. This week we’re exploring how great teams manage task, process and relationships.

Research demonstrates that there are three main things teams need to manage - the task (what outcome needs to be achieved), the process (how we’re going to achieve the outcome), and the people (how we’re going to work together as human beings). Failing to manage each of these three elements almost inevitably leads to conflict and reduced performance.

There are three common traps that teams fall into:

1. The most common trap is a tendency to focus immediately on the task, neglecting the process and relationships. This results in a flurry of activity but it may well be the wrong activity. We fail to think about the relationships between the people in the room which can result in interpersonal issues and complaints. I often see this trap during leadership programs. You can teach all the theory and techniques in the world, but it all goes out the window once there’s a time-sensitive task to complete. People move straight to the task and ignore process and relationships.

2. The second most common trap is to become caught up with interpersonal issues, and lose sight of the task and process. People end up avoiding the team, progress stalls, and the team often falls apart as people question what the purpose is of meeting in the first place.

3. The third common trap is to focus so much on the process that we neglect the task and relationships. I see this regularly in projects where there’s a huge amount of upfront consultation with little consideration of how to make decisions or deal with differing perspectives. We gather lots of data but don’t know what to do with it.

The impact of conflict in task, process and relationships in teams has varied between different theories, with some frameworks encouraging conflict in these areas. However research into over 6000 teams suggests that task conflict, process conflict and relationship conflict all negatively impact on team performance. The only exception is for decision-making teams, where task conflict can sometimes have a small positive impact. Contrary to earlier theories, none of the three types of conflict reliably lead to innovation.

I’ve previously shared research about the team stages model by Tuckman. In the model he outlined teams get together and are polite during the Forming stage. We descend into disagreements and conflict during the Storming stage as people seek clarity that isn’t there yet. By agreeing standards and ways of working we reach Norming. And that as we combine the strengths of individuals with the strengths of process and relationships we reach Performing. Teams do indeed seem to follow these stages of development, except that storming can occur more frequently and at any point as the team is impacted by outside forces. Conflict about task, process and relationships doesn’t get solved in one neat stage, but rather needs to be continuously monitored and managed.

So the research suggests we need to actively recognise, manage and reduce task, process and relationship conflict. We can’t afford to ignore it or to leave it unmanaged. Conflict is effectively a symptom that something needs to be addressed in one of these three.

Here are some questions that might help for both new and established teams:

- Task - What is our purpose as a team? What is the task we’ve been asked to achieve? What’s the problem we’re needing to solve? What can we uniquely contribute to the organisation?

- Process - How are we going to get there? What’s the plan and order of activity? What’s the division of workload and responsibilities? How are we going to make decisions? How are we going to measure our performance? How will we hold each other accountable? How are we going to monitor and respond to changing needs and circumstances?

- Relationships - What does each person bring to the team? What are the individual strengths and weaknesses? What experiences have we had that might be helpful? What commitments are we making to each other? How will we provide feedback to each other? How will we manage disagreements?

Actively managing task, process and relationships is a key part of any team’s success. Why not undertake a quick audit of all three with the teams you lead?


Thomas A. O'Neill , Natalie J. Allen & Stephanie E. Hastings (2013) Examining the “Pros” and “Cons” of Team Conflict: A Team-Level Meta-Analysis of Task, Relationship, and Process Conflict, Human Performance, 26:3, 236-260, DOI: 10.1080/08959285.2013.795573