Managing Conflict

Styles of Interpersonal Conflict

Team conflict is a state of discord between individuals that work together.

Learning Objectives

Explain the distinction between substantive and affective conflicts and between intra- and inter-organizational conflict

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Conflict is a state of discord between people, or groups of people working together, caused by an actual or perceived opposition of needs, values, and/or interests.
  • Substantive conflicts deal with aspects of performance or tasks and often relate specifically to the project or goals of a team or organization.
  • Affective conflicts, also known as personal conflicts, revolve around personal disagreements or dislikes between individuals in a team.
  • Organizational conflict may be intra-organizational, meaning it takes place across departments or within teams, or it may be inter-organizational, meaning it arises from disagreements between two or more organizations.

Key Terms

  • affective: Relating to, resulting from, or influenced by emotions.
  • substantive: Of the core essence or essential element of a thing or topic.

Conflict is a feature common to social life. In organizations, conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values, and/or interests between people working together. Conflict on teams takes many forms and can be minor, causing only brief disruption, or major, threatening the team’s ability to function and attain its goals. We can distinguish between two type of conflict: substantive and affective.

Substantive and Affective Conflict

Substantive conflicts deal with aspects of a team’s work. For example, conflicts can arise over questions about an individual’s performance, differing views about the scope of a task or assignment, disparate definitions of acceptable quality, or the nature of a project goal. Other substantive conflicts involve how team members work together. These process conflicts often involve disagreements over the strategies, policies, and procedures the group should use in order to complete its tasks.

Affective conflict relates to trouble that develops in interpersonal relationships among team members. While these personal conflicts emerge as people work together, they may have their roots in factors separate from the team’s purpose and activities. Affective conflicts are often based on personality conflicts, differing communication styles, perceptions about level of effort, or personal dislikes based on negative past experiences.

Intra-Organizational and Inter-Organizational Conflict

Both substantive and affective conflicts can be separated into those that happen within an organization and those that happen between two or more different organizations. Intra-organizational conflicts occur across departments in an organization, within work teams and other groups, and between individuals. Inter-organizational conflicts are disagreements between people—business partners, for example, or other collaborators, vendors, and distributors—in two or more organizations.

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Arguing wolves: These wolves are expressing disagreement over territory or having some other type of conflict.

The Impact of Interpersonal Conflict on Team Performance

Conflict can have damaging or productive effects on the performance of a team.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the way in which conflict can both help and hurt a team’s performance

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Conflict is common within teams, especially during the storming phase of team development.
  • Team conflict provides benefits including resolving misunderstandings, improving processes, and changing behaviors.
  • Team conflict can have negative consequences such as reduced group cohesion and lower productivity, and it can even threaten the team’s existence.

Key Terms

  • interdependent: Mutually dependent; reliant on one another.
  • affective: Relating to, resulting from, or influenced by emotions.

Conflict occurs often in teamwork, especially during the storming phase of team development. While at first we might think of all conflict between team members as undesirable and harmful, the process of resolving conflicts can actually provide benefits to team performance. Whether a conflict is productive or not can depend on how team members perceive it, as well as how it affects progress toward the team’s goals.

Benefits of Team Conflict

Substantive conflicts can affect performance for the better by removing barriers caused by different assumptions or misunderstandings about a team’s tasks, strategy, or goals. Conflict can be constructive when it creates broader awareness about how team members are experiencing their work and thus leads to changes that improve members’ productivity. Conflict can also lead to process improvements, such as when it reveals a deficiency in how the team communicates, which can then be corrected. Clashes of ideas can lead to more creative solutions or otherwise provide perspectives that persuade the team to take a different approach that is more likely to lead to success.

Addressing personal conflicts that arise between members can facilitate cooperation by helping individuals adapt their behavior to better suit the needs of others. Although most people find conflict uncomfortable while they are experiencing it, they can come to recognize its value as the team progresses in its development.

Negative Consequences of Team Conflict

While sometimes conflict can lead to a solution to a problem, conflicts can also create problems. Discord caused by enmity between individuals can reduce team cohesion and the ability of team members to work together. Conflicts can create distractions that require time and effort to resolve, which can delay completion of tasks and even put a team’s goals at risk.

Communication can suffer when people withdraw their attention or participation, leading to poor coordination of interdependent tasks. Tension and heightened emotions can lower team members’ satisfaction, increase frustration, and lead to bad judgments. They can even prompt individuals to withdraw from the team, requiring the assignment of a new member or creating a resource scarcity that makes it more difficult for the team to fulfill its purpose. In extreme cases, conflict among members, if left unaddressed, can lead to the complete inability of the team to function, and thus to its disbandment.

Common Causes of Team Conflict

Team conflict is caused by factors related to individual behavior as well as disagreements about the team’s work.

Learning Objectives

Identify the causes of conflict within an organization as a conflict manager.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Team conflict arises from how people perceive the actions of others and from differing views of the team’s work and how it should be accomplished.
  • Common causes of team conflict include conflicting interests, incompatible work styles, competition over resources, failure to follow norms, poor communication, and performance deficiencies.

Key Terms

  • ambiguity: Something liable to more than one interpretation, explanation, or meaning.
  • affective: Relating to, resulting from, or influenced by emotions.

Conflict between team members comes from several sources. Some conflicts have their basis in how people behave, while others come from disagreements about the nature of the team’s work and how it is being accomplished.

  • Competing interests: Conflict can arise when people have mutually incompatible desires or needs. For example, two team members with similar skills may both want a certain assignment, leaving the one who doesn’t receive it resentful.
  • Different behavioral styles or preferences: Individuals may clash over their respective work habits, attention to detail, communication practices, or tone of expression. While these can affect coordination of interdependent tasks, they can especially inhibit direct collaboration.
  • Competition over resources: Members may fight over the limited resources available to accomplish the team’s tasks. For example, if two people both rely on the action of a third person to meet identical deadlines, disagreements might arise over whose work should receive that person’s attention first.
  • Failure to follow team norms: A team member creates conflict when she displays attitudes or behaviors that go against the team’s agreement about how it will function. If a group norm calls for prompt arrival at meetings and prohibits the use of mobile devices during discussions, ignoring these practices can engender conflict.
  • Performance deficiencies: When some team members are either not contributing their share of effort or not performing at the expected level of quality, the impositions that result can create friction, which may be heightened when critical or highly visible tasks are involved.
  • Poor communication: When team members do not share relevant information with each other, people may make decisions or take actions that others consider inappropriate or even harmful. Blame and questions about motives can result, creating discord among the team.
  • Ambiguity about means and ends: Lack of clarity about tasks, strategies, and/or goals can lead people to make assumptions that others do not share or agree with, which can result in conflict.
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Card game argument: Behavioral differences and personality clashes can cause conflict even among friends.

Constructive Team Conflict

Teams can use conflict as a strategy for enhancing performance.

Learning Objectives

Explain how conflict can be used as a strategy for improving team performance

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Team performance can benefit by using conflict to foster learning and process improvement.
  • Team members can establish guidelines and norms that encourage constructive conflict.

Key Terms

  • innovation: A change in customs; something new and contrary to established patterns, manners, or rites.
  • conflict: A clash or disagreement between two opposing groups or individuals.

Teams may use conflict as a strategy for continuous improvement and learning. Recognizing the benefits of conflict and using them as part of the team’s process can enhance team performance. Conflict can uncover barriers to collaboration that changes in behavior can remove. It can also foster better decisions because it makes team members consider the perspectives of others and even helps them see things in new and innovative ways.

Addressing conflict can increase team cohesion by engaging members in discussions about important issues. Team members may feel more valued when they know they are contributing to something vital to the team’s success. Conflict can reveal assumptions that may not apply in the current situation and thus allow the team to agree on a new course. It can also draw attention to norms that have developed without the explicit agreement of team members and create the opportunity to endorse or discard them.

Generating Constructive Conflict

Team members and others can follow a few guidelines for encouraging constructive conflict. First, they can start by explicitly calling for it as something that will help improve the team’s performance. This helps people view conflict as acceptable and can thus free them to speak up.

Teams can lower the emotional intensity of any conflict be establishing clear guidelines for how to express disagreements and challenge colleagues. One helpful norm is to focus on the task-related element of a conflict rather than criticizing the traits of particular individuals. Another is to emphasize common goals and shared commitments, which can keep conflict in perspective and prevent it from overwhelming the team’s efforts.

Team Conflict Resolution and Management

Some ways of dealing with conflict seek resolution; others aim to minimize negative effects on the team.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between conflict resolution and conflict management

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Conflict resolution aims to eliminate disagreements and disputes among team members; in contrast, conflict management seeks to minimize the negative effects of conflict on team performance.
  • There are three main approaches to conflict resolution: integrative, distributive, and mediating.
  • There are three main conflict-management tactics: smoothing, yielding, and avoiding.

Key Terms

  • dispute: An argument or disagreement.
  • resolution: The moment in which a conflict ends and the outcome is clear.
  • adversarial: Characteristic of an opponent; combative, hostile.

The way a team deals with conflicts that arise among members can influence whether and how those conflicts are resolved and, as a result, the team’s subsequent performance. There are several ways to approach managing and resolving team conflict—some leave the team and its members better able to continue their work, while others can undermine its effectiveness as a performing unit.

Conflict Resolution

Teams use one of three primary approaches to conflict resolution: integrative, distributive, and mediating.

  1. Integrative approaches focus on the issue to be solved and aim to find a resolution that meets everyone’s needs. Success with this tactic requires the exchange of information, openness to alternatives, and a willingness to consider what is best for the group as a whole rather than for any particular individual.
  2. Distributive approaches find ways to divide a fixed number of positive outcomes or resources in which one side comes out ahead of the other. Since team members have repeated interactions with each other and are committed to shared goals, the expectation of reciprocity can make this solution acceptable since those who don’t get their way today may end up “winning” tomorrow.
  3. Mediating approaches bring in a third party to facilitate a non-confrontational, non-adversarial discussion with the goal of helping the team reach a consensus about how to resolve the conflict. A mediator from outside the team brings no emotional ties or preconceived ideas to the conflict and therefore can help the team identify a broader set of solutions that would be satisfactory to all.

Although these three approaches all bring overt conflict to an end, team cohesion can suffer if members perceive the process itself as unfair, disrespectful, or overly contentious. The result can be resentment that festers and leads to subsequent additional conflict that a more conciliatory process might have avoided.

Conflict Management

The primary aim of conflict management is to promote the positive effects and reduce the negative effects that disputes can have on team performance without necessarily fully resolving the conflict itself. Teams use one of three main tactics to manage conflict: smoothing, yielding, and avoiding.

  1. The smoothing approach attempts to minimize the differences among the people who are in conflict with each other. This strategy often focuses on reducing the emotional charge and intensity of how the people speak to each other by emphasizing their shared goals and commitments.
  2. The yielding approach describes the choice some team members make to simply give in when others disagree with them rather than engage in conflict. This is more common when the stakes are perceived to be small or when the team member’s emotional ties to the issue at hand are not particularly strong.
  3. In the avoiding approach, teams members may choose to simply ignore all but the most contentious disagreements. While this can have short-term benefits and may be the best option when the team is under time pressure, it is the approach least likely to produce a sense of harmony among the team.

While conflict can increase the engagement of team members, it can also create distractions and draw attention away from important tasks. Because conflict management seeks to contain such disruptions and threats to team performance, conflicts do not disappear so much as exist alongside the teamwork.