Category Management Insights
04 October 2017

Conflicts in startup teams – When fighting is destructive and when it is constructive

Members of startup teams need to work interdependently under high levels of pressure and on unfamiliar tasks. In these challenging conditions, conflicts in the team are unavoidable. These conflicts can lead to fundamentally different outcomes: often, high levels of conflicts are experienced as destructive and put team and firm survival at risk. However, conflicts can also lead to an intense exchange of ideas which may, in turn, increase team and firm performance. To take into account these opposing outcomes, team researchers distinguish between relationship conflict—interpersonal incompatibilities in the team—and task conflict—disagreements on task content and viewpoints. While these types of conflict can be differentiated based on content and outcomes, it is unclear when the team members themselves experience conflicts in a negative way, although their immediate emotional reaction would help to better understand the direct impact of conflicts. Therefore, Professor Breugst from


They find that relationship conflict triggers negative emotions in team members, whereas task conflict can reduce these emotions. Interestingly, the emotional reactions depend heavily on the environment outside of the team as well as within it. First, the uncertainty surrounding the team shapes team members’ emotional reactions. If uncertainty is running high, team members do not react so intensely: relationship conflict is seen as less annoying, but task conflict as less helpful. In an uncertain environment, team members are more willing to excuse their teammates’ harsh and aggressive communication during a conflict. However, they also consider a lengthy exchange of perspectives as a waste of time in comparison to a more certain environment. Second, within the team, the members’ satisfaction with the team intensifies the team members’ emotional reactions to conflict. In an environment in which positive team interactions are expected, team members resent their teammates for their hostile communication behavior. In contrast, if satisfaction with the team is low, team members are not interested in an exchange of perspective and react with annoyance to task conflict. In short, startup team members react differently to different types of conflict, shaped by their specific environment. Importantly, uncertainty which is typically seen as something negative has a positive impact because it can reduce team members’ negative emotional reactions, whereas team satisfaction which is normally positive and desirable intensifies negative emotional reactions.


For members of startup teams, these findings are highly relevant, as they need to understand the differences between relationship and task conflict to allow for an inspiring conflict around ideas without a clash of personalities. However, to have a positive effect task conflict needs to fall on a fertile ground, such as sufficient time, availability of information, and a positive attitude towards the teammates. If teams encounter relationship conflict, it can help the members to blame conditions outside of the team to cope emotionally with the conflict. Conflicts are a part of life as a startup team, so successful teams need to learn how to deal with them.





Prof. Dr. Nicola Breugst
Entrepreneurial Behavior


Chair: Entrepreneurship Research Institute



Source: Breugst, N., & Shepherd, D. A. (2017). If you fight with me, I'll get mad! A social model of entrepreneurial affect. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 41(3), 379-418. doi:10.1111/etap.12211.