Managing Team Conflict - Principles of Management

A few years ago Armstrong Worldwide, Inc., put together a team of information systems employees and outside consultants to select and install a new client–server network. Before long team members at the flooring and building materials company were engaging in several heated disagreements. The consultants preferred working 12-hour days, Monday through Thursday, then flying home on Friday. This didn’t sit well with Armstrong’s people, who lived nearby and therefore favored a traditional schedule. A second dispute centered on who was in charge.

Armstrong’s executives decided that the consultants should lead the project, but this meant that Armstrong’s people were stuck with whatever system and configuration the consultants decided. A third source of tension was that some information systems employees were worried about losing their jobs to the outside consultants. “[These conflicts] created a large amount of stress and some turnover for us,” recalls Armstrong’s information systems development manager.

The client–server network installation team at Armstrong Worldwide experienced the wrath of dysfunctional conflict and its consequences. Conflict is a process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party.

Armstrong’s information systems employees experienced conflict with the consultants (and with Armstrong’s own managers) because they believed the consultants were deliberately or incidentally opposing their interests, including hours of work, long-term technology obligations, and job security. Notice that conflict is a perception, which means that it begins long before observable disagreements. Thus managers need to look for subtle signs of conflict perceptions to prevent dysfunctional behaviors that may follow.

TASK VERSUS RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT

A few decades ago management experts warned that conflict was bad and that effective managers prevented conflict from developing. They observed that conflict resulted in the same problems that Armstrong Worldwide experienced, including stress, turnover, lack of information sharing, and nonproductive behavior toward others. The more intense the conflict, the lower the team’s performance and satisfaction.

More recently management writers have adopted the view that conflict is good to a certain degree. They have developed an elegant upside-down U-shaped model showing that team performance is highest when managers encourage moderate levels of conflict (the top of the upside-down U). This advice is based on evidence that some level of conflict motivates team members to more thoroughly debate and analyze problems and opportunities. Conflict-motivated debate brings out new ideas and improves everyone’s understanding of the issue, which then produces better decisions and team performance, particularly for ambiguous tasks.

Unfortunately the “moderate conflict is good” advice isn’t quite correct, either. To understand the influence of conflict on team effectiveness, we need to distinguish between task related conflict and relationship conflict. Task-related conflict (also called constructive conflict ) occurs when team members perceive that the conflict is in the task or problem rather than in each other.

Team members view the problem as something “out there” that needs to be resolved, and the employees are merely messengers in this discussion. In contrast, relationship conflict occurs when team members view differences as personal attacks that threaten their self-esteem and resources. The conflicting parties view others (their attitudes, biases, and decisions) as the source of conflict.

Consider the different conflict perspectives adopted by Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin, the former and current leaders of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. For 15 years Goodenow took an uncompromising approach that rewarded players handsomely, but critics say it also generated relationship conflict with NHL team owners. That relationship conflict may have been a factor in the cancellation of an entire hockey season a few years ago.

When the owners canceled the season, Goodenow didn’t mince words, saying that the players “never had a real negotiating partner.” Goodenow stepped down when players agreed to the NHL owners’ request to cap team salaries. Goodenow was replaced by Ted Saskin, who has taken a more conciliatory and task-oriented approach to the conflict. “We’ve got to be able to work more cooperatively (with the NHL) in the future,” Saskin announced on the day he took over.

NHL board of governors chair Harley Hotchkiss thinks Saskin’s approach to resolving differences is good for the sport’s future. “I will say nothing bad about Bob Goodenow,” insists Hotchkiss. “I just think that in any business you need a spirit of cooperation to move forward, and I think Ted Saskin will handle that well.”

Minimizing Relationship Conflict The “moderate conflict is good” advice assumes that relationship conflict can remain low as task-related conflict increases up to some midpoint.

Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Relationship conflict flares up in some teams even when members experience low levels of task-related conflict. Other teams can have high levels of task-related conflict without developing perceptible levels of relationship conflict. The best advice for managers is to encourage task-related conflict and apply the following four strategies to suppress relationship conflict:

  • Emotional intelligence: Relationship conflict is less likely to occur, or is less likely to escalate, when team members have high levels of emotional intelligence.
    Team members have high emotional intelligence when they are aware of their own and others’ emotions, and when they are able to manage emotions in themselves and others. Employees with high emotional intelligence can better regulate their emotions during debate, which reduces the risk of escalating perceptions of interpersonal hostility.
  • Cohesive team: Relationship conflict is suppressed when the conflict occurs within a highly cohesive team. The longer people work together, get to know each other, and develop mutual trust, the more latitude they give each other to show emotions without being personally offended.
    Members of cohesive teams are also motivated to remain with the team, which motivates them to avoid escalating relationship conflict during otherwise emotionally turbulent discussions.
  • Supportive team norms: Various team norms can hold relationship conflict at bay during constructive debate. When team norms encourage openness, for instance, team members learn to appreciate honest dialogue without personally reacting to any emotional display during the disagreements. Other norms might discourage team members from displaying negative emotions toward coworkers.
  • Problem-solving conflict management style: Whether relationship conflict emerges from constructive debate depends to some extent on the interpersonal conflict management style used by those participating in the conflict. Specifically, team members who take a problem-solving approach are less likely to trigger strong emotions compared with those who assertively force their preferences on others.

INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT MANAGEMENT STYLES

Sometimes team members approach conflict with a winner-take-all attitude that views the other party as a competitor. Or they might try to resolve the conflict with the perception that everyone can come out ahead through creative problem solving. The conflict literature identifies five interpersonal conflict management styles, each with a unique degree of cooperativeness and assertiveness (see Figure below).

Interpersonal Conflict Management Styles

Interpersonal Conflict Management Styles

No single style is best in every situation. However, as we mentioned, some styles are more likely than others to transform task-related conflict into relationship conflict.

  • Problem solving: Problem solving tries to find a mutually beneficial solution for both parties. Information sharing is an important feature of this style because both parties collaborate to identify common ground and potential solutions that satisfy both (or all) of them. This style is often preferred because it minimizes the risk of relationship conflict.
    However, it won’t work well if team members lack trust and the sides have perfectly opposing interests.
  • Avoiding: Avoiding tries to smooth over or avoid conflict situations altogether. It represents a low concern for both self and the other party. For example, some employees will rearrange their work areas or tasks to minimize interaction with certain coworkers. This style works best when the problem has already generated relationship conflict and the issue is not worth fighting over.
  • Forcing: Forcing tries to win the conflict at the other’s expense. This style relies on assertive influence tactics. The forcing style creates a high risk of relationship conflict, but it may be necessary when the dispute requires a quick solution or the opposing party’s views are unethical.
  • Yielding: Yielding involves giving in completely to the other side’s wishes, or at least cooperating with little or no attention to your own interests. This style may be necessary when the opponent has substantially more power or the issue is not as important to you as to the other party. In the long run, however, yielding may produce more conflict because it raises the other party’s expectations of an easy win in disputes.
  • Compromising: Compromising involves actively searching for a middle ground between the interests of the two parties. This style may be best when there is little hope for mutual gain through problem solving, both parties have equal power, and both are under time pressure to settle their differences. However, compromising tends to overlook creative solutions such as those discovered when using the problem-solving style.

STRUCTURAL SOLUTIONS TO TEAM CONFLICT

So far we have looked at the interpersonal side of team conflict. But when conflict escalates or continues without resolution, managers need to identify the structural causes of that conflict and apply corresponding solutions. One of the most common structural causes of conflict is incompatible goals. Consider the disagreement described earlier between Armstrong Worldwide employees and the external consultants over work schedule preferences. The employees wanted a well-spaced balance of work and leisure, whereas the external consultants wanted a large chunk of work so they could fly back home for a longer weekend.

There is no easy solution to goal incompatibility, but one idea is to emphasize superordinate goals to both groups. Superordinate goals are common objectives held by conflicting parties that are more important than the departmental or individual goals on which the conflict is based. By increasing commitment to corporatewide goals, employees place less emphasis on, and therefore feel less conflict with, coworkers regarding competing individual or departmental-level goals.

A second source of team conflict is the different beliefs, backgrounds, and values that employees bring to the group. Your values shape your preferences and motivation, so people with different values tend to prefer different choices and have different motivations. Earlier we noted that diverse values and backgrounds improve team effectiveness, so reducing this diversity isn’t usually the best solution to conflict. Instead managers need to find ways for employees to understand each other’s differences—in other words, to increase empathy among team members.

Task interdependence is a third reason why conflict exists. The more tightly interconnected your work is with other people’s work, the more likely your actions are to interfere with their goals. And because a team is partly defined by the interdependence of its members, conflict is going to occur. If conflict gets out of hand, managers might look at ways to reduce the intensity of interdependence. For instance, rather than have two people perform highly interdependent services for a customer, it may be better for each employee to provide both services.

Finally, conflict often results from ambiguity over rules and responsibilities. Look back at the Armstrong Worldwide conflict again. Armstrong’s employees and the external consultants lacked clear guidelines over work hours and (at first) leadership responsibilities, which motivated them to act competitively toward each other. Eventually Armstrong executives doused the conflict by clarifying these duties and expectations. They also set up an advisory group to make further rules if employees and consultants developed future disputes.


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