Conflict Resolution in Work Teams Conflict in work teams is inevitable but does not necessarily impact a team's performance negatively, and the successful use of teams can be the cornerstone of good management as long as constructive solutions are implemented along with open-minded communication within the group. Conflict Resolution in Work Teams What is conflict? Conflict, as it pertains to productivity in work teams, is defined as, "the clashing or variance of opposed principles, statements, arguments, etc". (Oxford).
While there are different types of conflict, many of the sources and causes are the same. The primary issues that are the source of most conflict, according to a study on sources of project conflict by Kezsbom (cited in Townsley, 1995) include: o Goals and priority issues o Personality and interpersonal issues o Communication and information flow Differences in perspective, in relation to goal setting and prioritization of tasks, can create tension in work groups. Some examples of this include: Budget allocations, limited resources, tight deadlines, and heavy workloads. Also, personality and interpersonal issues can arise from individual differences, such as physical, cultural, racial, and ethnic. There are also value differences, problems with self-confidence, interpersonal skills, and every so often, language differences. Ineffective communication and information flow issues range from misunderstandings, differences in semantics, and environmental conditions, to improper use of media.
When team members either do not or cannot communicate, work teams are not able to function efficiently as we will explain in the next section. Types of conflict Source of team dilemma There can be several types of conflict within a work team. First, it is important to mention that the interaction between the individuals in the team and the team as a whole can be dynamic in nature. Team members each have the responsibility to solve problems and work together to accomplish a company's organizational goals, and often can. However, this productivity or change in growth often causes certain types of conflict, and as we will see, can erect roadblocks that either slow the team down or bring it to a standstill. In either case, the team does not function as efficiently as it could.
The types of conflict that we will discuss, include: o Personal conflict o Peer to peer conflict o Supervisor to worker conflict o Worker to supervisor conflict o Team conflict Personal conflict Personal conflict occurs when a team member has a personal dislike or negative attitude, either toward another team member, the team itself, the organization, or the focus of the team's effort. Peer to peer Peer to peer conflicts usually evolve as a result of competition and ego building. While healthy competition, which we will discuss later, can aid in the work of the team, competition to satisfy the needs of a team member's ego rarely add value to the team. Supervisor to worker In this scenario, the supervisor uses his authority to intimidate those members who he feels are not as important within the organizational level. He may push or insist that the bulk of the work be directed to the workers. Worker to supervisor The worker may feel intimated to voice his opinions in fear of retaliation.
He may sense he is not important enough to "make a difference" or to disagree with other team members. Team Teams frequently have issues with authority, especially in self-directed work teams, where no single individual wants to be in charge, or all the individuals want to be in charge. Also, conflicts over scheduling, distribution of workload, and responsibility of tasks are common. Situations in which teams lack sufficient members, lack the proper budget or resources, or possibly the authority to complete the project at hand, can create serious problems in accomplishing team goals. Is conflict always bad? While many tend to think of conflict as unpleasant, there is both destructive and constructive conflict as shown in Table 1 below.
Table 1 Destructive and Constructive Conflict DESTRUCTIVE CONFLICTo Diverts energy from real tasks Destroys morale Polarizes individuals and groups Deepens differences Obstructs cooperative action Produces irresponsible behavior Creates suspicion and distrust o Decreases productivity CONSTRUCTIVE CONFLICTo Opens up an issue in a confronting manner Develops clarification of an issues Improves problem-solving quality Increases involvement Provides more spontaneity in communication Initiates growth Strengthens a relationship when creatively resolved Helps increase productivity (RATZBURG, 1999) We can see from Table 1 that bad or destructive conflict does nothing to help the team accomplish its work nor does it lead to the attainment of its goals. On the other hand, good or constructive conflict is the desired condition that which a team should make every effort to achieve. Furthermore, constructive conflict enhances group participation and creates an environment in which the issues at hand are resolved and the individual team members leave the meeting with more than they brought in. Finally, constructive conflict strengthens the team and provides for a productive atmosphere.
Real world example The use of constructive conflict in a work team is best exemplified in Jim Collins' (2001) book Good to Great. Jim, along with his research team, spent over five years studying why some companies go from "Good to Great" and why others never make that leap. To arrive at their findings he says in his book, "With data in hand, we began a series of weekly research-team debates... members of the research team and I would systematically read all the articles, analyses, interviews, and research coding. I would make a presentation... [And then] we would debate, disagree, pound on tables, raise our voices, pause and reflect, debate some more, pause ant think, discuss, resolve, question, and debate yet again about 'what it all means. ' " (p. 9-10) Ways to diffuse bad conflict Effective Solutions Within the realm of conflict resolution, there are five different modes that we will characterize separately. There is no single or correct approach to confronting conflict but there are some useful criteria in choosing which method is best suited in a given situation.
Before discussing the modes that we referred to above, it is important to note that for a team to be successful, the members must determine which of the five modes will be most beneficial to resolve an issue. Many teams get into the habit of using the same mode for each problem. This is a mistake because using a mode that is unsuited for the problem and by ignoring the process of assessing each particular situation, the team will invariably face additional problems, and some not even relevant to the one at hand. Teams must know how and when to use the appropriate modes to resolve conflict. The modes to be discussed here are as follows: o Compete with others o Avoid the situation o Compromise o Accommodate o Participate o Ask questions o Identity building o Building trust Compete with others The compete mode is characterized by individual team members who have an attitude in which they must "win at all costs". They often do not share the team's common objective and have their own interests and not one of cooperation.
Competitors are highly assertive, aggressive, power oriented, combative and uncooperative. (Thomas-Kilmann, 2001, p. 3) Team members in this category believe that only their views or ideas should be implemented and do not respect the ideas of others. However, this approach may be useful and welcomed when quick, decisive action is required, and also if an unpleasant or unpopular decision must be made. (Thomas-Kilmann, 2001, p. 6) Avoid the situation Directly contrasted from the previous example above is the avoidance mode. Individuals in this category are low on assertiveness and cooperation. They dodge conflict, refuse to acknowledge that it exists, and often ignore it completely.
They avoid any problems that they are faced with and make excuses as to why they cannot give their opinion on issues. This approach can cause the team to breakdown because the necessary input from all members is not considered, which in turn causes decisions to be made by default. This, in effect, degrades the team to a mere group. However, as is the case in most teams, no one style is always effective in every situation, and the avoidance style could be effectively used to solve conflict.
For example, an individual would want to avoid a situation in which the desired outcome or needs would never be obtained, or the confrontation itself would be damaging. While the avoidance style and the competitive style are opposite, the compromise and accommodate style are closely related. Compromise The compromisers are both assertive and cooperative, although they often fall short on both attributes. Compromisers settle quickly, make many trade-offs and have a "win a little, lose a little" attitude. (IBM, 2002). Persons characterized in this mode frequently try to please everyone.
Although it is often a welcomed method to resolve conflict, it usually is a short-term solution and should only be used when there is no time to reach a consensus. Also, usually at a later date the issues that were handled using this method must be re-evaluated again to finalize and remedy the conflict. Accommodate Accommodators are passive, group thinkers, and usually go along with whatever the group believes to be the right direction. Team members that use this approach let others come with the ideas and do not offer or contribute ideas of their own. Unfortunately, they may have, and often times do have, important insights that would otherwise be a benefit to the team and its mission. Because of their in actions though, these individuals are usually not recognized or respected since they do not voice their opinions or ideas, and they therefore are not considered contributors to the team.
It is believed by some that this mode should be used only when an individual team member cannot present a better solution or the particular solution of the member is known to be incorrect, or you simply want to avoid disruptions. (IBM, 2002). Participate Participation is considered by most to be an effective mode of conflict resolution, and by others, the very best mode. This style obtains solutions through team consensus.
Team members usually are considered "team players" and have a "win-win" attitude. (IBM, 2002). They approach conflict together, give input, and are willing to work toward the end result or goal to help the team succeed, and they make it their highest priority. Again, we must be fair and mention the downside, which is, time. Full participation simply takes more time to reach consensus as each of the members ideas are examined, and because of this fact, other important issues often get neglected. Ask questions According to Thompson (1991), the most important question a team member can ask of another is: "What are your priorities in this situation?" (cited in University of Phoenix, Tools for Teams, 2002).
Team members should seek information from one another in order to discover solutions and reach a settlement that is mutually beneficial toward the team's ultimate goal. Members must feel comfortable asking questions without fear of feeling unintelligent and should not be afraid to present their position or ideas to the team. Identity building When team member's identities are defined, the team is able to determine exactly what each of the individual's capabilities and special skills are as they relate to the teams mission. Recognizing and linking individual efforts can assist the members by motivating them to sustain their team assignments and lessen the likelihood that individual self interests becomes an issue. Building trust Trust is a major contributor to any team and allows team members to express their views freely without fear of being ridiculed. It is trust that enables each of the members to build their identity within the team and allows the members to make mutually beneficial agreements more frequently.
As we have discussed, results can be achieved when team members are able to ask questions, share ideas, communicate, make decisions, and act on them accordingly. Trust empowers the members to accomplish all of these things, and at the same time provides the tools to make balanced, well thought out, effective decisions. Ineffective solutions Intuition Intuition means to think and reason within ourselves and is a process of feeling and knowing, but not consciously, as to why we feel. (Talisayon, 2001, p. 1).
Intuition, however, is not considered an effective solution for conflict resolution in work teams. Before discussing why this is believed to be the case, let us explain a bit more in depth, the positive aspects of intuition in the workplace. Most would agree that to operate outside of our conscious awareness and to recognize that learning or working is not only just something we do, it is a process that allows things to happen. Even if we cannot explain our feeling or intuitions, we should not withhold disclosing them. If we withhold our simplest feelings of thought that would normally be discarded as unimportant, then we miss out on useful new insights or ideas that may actually turn out to be correct. If we ignore the minute details and concentrate on the information at the surface of our minds we can more easily let our ideas flow.
Now, with that said, effective conflict management is not intuitive and it is a mistake to use it to correct conflicts. The difference here is important, the term intuition, as opposed to, intuition used as a resolution for conflict management. Intuition used to resolve conflicts allows us to make incorrect assumptions about what an individuals needs are in a given situation. We are generally not skilled in reading others emotions and thoughts in negotiations of conflicts. Conflict resolutions need to have easy to evaluate and non-ambiguous solutions and techniques to be effective. In the corporate team environment, team members that offer mere hunches as opposed to valued experience, often are labeled as fantasizing as opposed to fact, imaginative as opposed to sensible, fascinating as opposed to down-to-earth.
Their solutions are considered, and based on, stereotypes and unsubstantiated information. The value of intuition in work team conflict resolution, if it is to be considered at all, should at least, require it's members to have a through understanding and knowledge of the task assigned. In this way the hunches are more likely to be perceived as equitable treatment. The Sinclair Education Institute Web site provides further insight on this topic (web). Majority rule Majority rule is considered an ineffective solution to resolve conflict in work teams and contains many problems toward the objective, that being consensus. Those who are completely indifferent and vote, are as strong as those who feel passionately about an issue, they count only as much as the other.
Majority rule does not guarantee conflict resolution despite its democratic process and it eliminates an individuals strengths and preferences by cutting off creative tradeoffs among topics. When an oversimplification method such as majority rule is used, complex issues cannot be addressed using the full strength, preferences and alternatives of the team. Information cannot be exchanged amongst team members and their preferences are ignored. Also, coalitions can often be formed further inhibiting information exchange and discussion of the individual members Discussion of issues in succession The discussion of issues in succession as a means to resolve conflict is a fallacy.
When conflict issues are characterized by, and discussed sequentially, rather than simultaneously, conflicts can become escalated. However, the ability to make tradeoffs between issues that are being discussed has shown success in conflict management. When all issues are discussed under consideration at the same time the results have greater profitable outcomes and allows for joint discussion on the various parts of issues. The possibility of having missed trade-offs between issues is reduced and more information, insights, and interests can be explored amongst members. When all else fails Healthy and unhealthy competition In every work team, there are healthy and unhealthy competitions. Some unhealthy competitions include, but are not limited to, downplaying another member of the team, trying to take over a position that belongs to someone else, or involving yourself and taking credit for what others may be getting as an incentives for submitting projects on time.
De-emphasizing another team member can increase negativity within a team and deceases the team's productivity. When members concern themselves unproductively in other's business within the team, it can shift the focus away from the team's objectives and also limits the individual's performance. For example, member's that are constantly wondering whether or not the pay rates of fellow team members are the same or if they are preoccupied with snooping to steal ideas, then they inhibit themselves and the team by overlooking the true task at hand. Unhealthy competitions can affect a work team more than is realized. If it is not recognized and eliminated, it can eventually destroy the team's sole purpose, which is, the increased ability for making decisions quickly and efficiently within a company.
Healthy competition, on the other hand, is considered a positive practice and includes competing "against ourselves in order to learn new and better job skills" (Kramer, 2001). Also, competing against ourselves can help improve overall job performance within a team. If a team competes against another team this can also be considered healthy competition, because desire and motivation are usually increased. With healthy competition, it enhances one's inert competitiveness so that each person is striving just a little harder to do better. It can be a fabulous motivator, but if used in the wrong manner, it can result in conflict. Perceived fairness Each person enters a work team with their own perceptions of fairness.
Perceptions are diverse due to different backgrounds, views, and experiences. What is "fair" or "unfair" can be completely different for each individual, depending on how they perceive the situation. For example, a situation may occur within a team where one or two individuals get an additional bonus for completing a project ahead of time, but the rest of the group doesn't receive the same amount. The members not getting the bonus may perceive this as unfair, not even considering the possibilities of why it happened. The traits and habits we learned as children often are carried into adulthood. As children, we learned at a very early age that if we did not get what we wanted, the reaction was the same, "it isn't fair", because we had a certain awareness, although limited, as to what was and what was not fair.
As adults, we do the same thing when something happens in our lives that may be difficult to handle. When working in a team environment, we need to be open-minded and be willing to somehow change how we perceive fairness in an effort to reduce the amount of conflict that can arise. If it is not handled properly, it can cause problems with morale, team contributions, and over all employee performance. Five step communication model Communication can make or break a team.
The communication skills of team members must be integral in that the members have to speak and listen effectively. To avoid misunderstandings the presentation of the individual's views should be clear and precise. Also, team members should listen attentively so that the focus of the team's objectives is not distorted. According to IBM's internal education class, Confronting and Resolving Conflict, there is a five-step communication model that should be followed when attempting to resolve any conflict.
Step 1 - Explain the problem objectively and clearly Step 2 - Provide constructive feedback Step 3 - Agree on the nature of the problem and exchange views Step 4 - Explore together, the available options Step 5 - Review the deal to insure that all parties understand it (2002). Next, we will briefly discuss the assessment process by which teams should use as an aid in achieving its goals and avoid conflict. Topics that teams should address in this process are; finding common ground, reinforce consensus-building skills, establish communication guidelines, agree on a common vision, identify and prioritize issues, and the development of a mission statement. We will discuss individual and team assessment techniques and how they achieve the process of assessment. Assessment Individual As we noted above, teams and individuals should assess themselves periodically to ensure they maintain the ability to manage and resolve conflict. First, the individuals should assess themselves by asking what is their predominant style of resolution and what are its strengths and weaknesses.
Next, members should perform a peer-to-peer informal evaluation by listing each other's strengths and weaknesses when dealing with conflict. Team Members of an effective team should analyze themselves as a unit and answer the following questions. What is the team's predominant style? Is it based on the style of an influential member? Do the members of the team try to find common-ground solutions? Once these questions have been answered, the team should develop a strategy to improve their style to make it more balanced.
Conclusion We have learned that conflict, although inevitable, has many origins and that our ability to recognize the good from bad is a learned skill. Conflict exhibits itself sometimes unexpectedly and has many faces, even in the best teams, in the best of companies. Our goal must be to recognize early, through self-assessment, and avoid situations that lead to negative conflict, and at the same time, be prepared to manage and / or diffuse it when it cannot be avoided. Above all, good leadership, and team communication skills are needed to overcome and facilitate the resolution process.
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