February 25, 2015

Teams and Conflict

“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” - Max Lucado

Whether conflict is harmful or beneficial ultimately is in the manner in which it is dealt with.

Managing conflict in teams

Conflict has many definitions including a state of war, a state of opposition between ideas, disagreement, controversy or simply a clash between two appointment times e.g. a diary conflict. It can also be referred to as discord, strife, contention or dissension. In psychology the term “to be conflicted“ may be applied as meaning an opposition between two simultaneous but incompatible wishes or drives that sometimes leads to a state of emotional tension.

Conflict in teams

In the context of a team, conflict generally means a difference of opinion on how something should be done, who should do it or even what should be done. Differing values, objectives, perceptions and expectations among team members can all lead to conflict.

Depending on how this conflict is addressed by the team—and the leader in particular—it can have negative outcomes such as the aforementioned discord and strife as well as stress, anxiety and reduced productivity. Conflict can also have positive outcomes that lead to increased productivity, more efficient processes or product and service innovation.

All forms of conflict can have a potential to become personalized where emotions are substituted for work issues, and blame, anger and frustration take the place of problem-solving and, more often than not, resulting in lost productivity.

In dealing with conflict and in order to encourage positive outcomes, it is helpful to know its source. Team based conflict tends to emanate from four principle sources:

Task conflict

Task conflict arises when people who are performing non-routine tasks differ on approach and priority. This is typical in a new team or a project team that has just been assembled.

Process conflict

Process conflict arises over operating procedures, rules of engagement and roles assigned to team members and is a feature of established teams. It centres not on the task itself but on how the task is managed.

Organisational conflict

Organisational conflict arises where team members perceive or experience inequality or ambiguity and is likely to arise in teams where:

  • the goals of individuals differ to those of the team;
  • there are status differences between team members and differing reward systems and
  • there is competition among members for scarce resources.

Social Conflict

Social conflict is associated with poor team leadership where symptoms include:

  • over-controlling leadership;
  • stifled discussion;
  • unevenly allocated tasks;
  • unproductive meetings;
  • over-dependancy on a few and
  • obvious favouritism.

Dealing with conflict

Preemptive strategies for dealing with conflict include establishing agreed team operating principles with a clear statement on how conflict will be handled and a set of standards for communication between team members.

Regular checks on how well such an agreement is holding are also required. Within the checkups there are opportunities to amend the agreement to suit the evolution of the relationships which is also a feature of any team as it matures.

Most importantly, a team leader must create a safe psychological environment where team members feel valued and feel free to express their views and concerns knowing that they will be taken seriously.

Conflict is normal

Conflict is normal and natural in teams. It may not always be avoided but should never be ignored. It must be addressed or it will fester.

A leader needs to be able to identify the types of conflict that are likely to become problematic. S/he should have an understanding of the sources and nature of the conflict and be efficient in devising creative alternatives, compromises and solutions for reaching agreement and finding the most productive way forward.

A leader must also recognise and be satisfied with the fact that not all conflicts can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

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