Context The effect of teamwork on team performance is broadly recognised in the medical field. This recognition is manifested in educational programmes in which attention to interpersonal behaviours during teamwork is growing. Conflict and power differences influence interpersonal behaviours and are marked topics in studies of group functioning in the social and organisational psychology literature. Insights from the domain of social sciences put the ongoing improvement of teamwork into broader perspective. Objectives This paper shows how knowledge from the domain of social and organisational psychology contributes to the understanding of teamwork in the medical environment. More specifically, this paper suggests that unfolding the underlying issues of power and conflict within medical teams can be of extra help in the development of educational interventions aimed at improving team performance. Methods We review the key social psychology and organisational behaviour literature concerning power and conflict, and relate the insights derived from this to the team process of ad hoc medical action teams. Results We present a theoretical framework in which insights into power and conflict are used to explain and predict team dynamics in ad hoc medical action teams. Conclusions Power and conflict strongly influence interpersonal behaviour. Characteristics of medical action teams give rise to all kinds of issues of disagreement and are accompanied by complex issues of intra-team power distribution. We argue that how team members coordinate, cooperate and communicate is steered by members’ personal motivations, which, in turn, strongly depend on their perceptions of power and conflict. Given the importance of the performance of these teams, we suggest future directions for the development of training interventions building on knowledge and theories derived from social and organisational psychology.