How do you handle scientific or engineering conflict in teams?

Four scientists in a lab all working together

Studies demonstrate that when scientific collaborators professionally challenge each other by asking questions and collaborate to expand on learning together to solve problems this can be very fruitful and positive. So, how do they do this and what can you learn from them? That is the focus of the commentary that follows.


Which ideas do you pursue or implement?


This can be an area of conflict in teams. Everyone may contribute their ideas.  In a healthy situation everyone working in the given area is solicited and their thoughts are considered. Affirmation of the idea whether useful or insignificant should be appreciated for contributing their ideas. Scientists thrive on disagreement.

Disagreement helps everyone to think and take actions to test hypotheses, determine what is true or false to advance their field.

The goal is to provide conditions that stimulate conflict for productive results. Productive disagreement as experienced in scientific analysis can provide positive insights in other fields. This article from the Harvard Program on Negotiation offers further insights.


Who gets the credit?


Recently I mediated a dispute on this topic at an academic institution. The primary or senior author in this field traditionally is the last name on a published article. The primary investigator that obtained the grant is often that senior author.  What if there is a particular article that someone completed the bulk of the actual research? Should that person be the senior author with the last name for that particular article?  This becomes more complex. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. 

The primary investigator may consider the work done by that person or team members and could magnanimously put that person or that subgroup ahead of his or her name.

This would help promote that researcher. Deciding whose name goes last in this type of instance can be a chance for accomplishment or disagreement. In a healthy collaborative environment this may be an area for discussion and team consideration. 

Think about this with your team. How do you encourage others and how do you affirm not individual accomplishments but team and group accomplishments?

How do you affirm with thanks, assisting, helping, sharing, and reaffirming each other?

I asked this of a distinguished academic that has been involved in over 100 papers and he shared that he sits down with the team in the lab and they discuss this. It sounds like a great example of collaboration. The ultimate decision is his. The importance of communication, transparency, and kindness go a long way towards collaboration. When the parties can see that they are working on a common problem rather than an individual effort this redefines the problem in broader terms with a mission, a vision, and goal related to the task at hand.


Relationships matter


In a recent mediation involving academics it became clear that the parties focused so much on their work independently that the time spent on relationship building was diminished. Actions were taken that involved untimely communication and actions that were counterproductive resulting in lost trust between the individuals.

It is important to take time out for laughter, camaraderie, team building and relationship building.

This helps reaffirm that research is important, but the relationships between the parties is actually more important so that participants can be seen as individuals, trust is nourished, and authentic connecting relationships developed.  

You can learn from this whether working physically or remotely.  Time needs to be set aside to enhance team building, informal discussions, and time to relate to one another. Explore this concept further. Search social media for ideas. Network with others. Reach out to your mentors. Look for ways to discover common interests.  

Be transparent as you can with others.  Consider legal, moral, and ethical concerns. If you can share do so. This will help promote understanding and encourage others to share with you. The more you understand not only the what, but the why, and what is behind the why, the greater your ability to continue to make progress through collaboration.




We all screw up.  Rather than harbor a grudge, bring into the open. Discuss it. This can be hard. Listen to the other party’s facts, issues, feelings, and interests. Listen for at least 10 minutes. Be transparent with the other party. Share that when such and such happened, this is how I felt. Use “I” and not “you” statements. Work towards understanding.

Be prepared to forgive.

 From The Servant Manager Tip 45 on Forgive Others it offers in part the following regarding why to forgive:

The reason is that forgiveness is not about the other person. It is about you. If you don’t forgive, the only person being hurt is you. It is your choice. It is about you moving on from whatever it is that you dislike, hate, distrust, have enmity for, disgusts you or that you loath. It is about those that you resent, make you angry, and those that you scorn. It is easy to harbor hate. When someone has wronged us, we are taught to seek revenge. It’s an ego thing. In this case I believe EGO stands for Easing God Out. If we focus on our selfish needs, we become embittered. I truly believe to be an uncommon manager you have to be able to forgive others.

Having said this, do you realize how much energy you waste when you hate someone else and you elect not to forgive the other person? This is energy that could be channeled in positive and in future directions.

People wrong us. People do bad things. Developing genuine compassion for those that have done you wrong may seem insurmountable. However, if you forgive, you can move on. This will give you powerful positive energy that can enable you to become an uncommon manager.



Instead of eliminating conflict, here the focus is on collaborating while having serious discussions regarding the approach to be taken with respect to the problem.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]