Conflicts Within the Team and How to Handle Them

· collaboration

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When we say “a conflict within the team”, we do not mean a superficial quarrel about what should be ordered for lunch.

Oh no.

By team conflicts we mean those rooted misunderstandings that are on the way to become “apple of discord” that will break your team into tiny “impossible-to-reattach” pieces, costing your company money and manpower.

Similarly, we are not going to waste a lot of your time on constructive conflicts. Instead, we will focus on prevention and management of destructive conflict which is (whether you like it or not) bound to happen sooner or later within your organization.

But before we start, here is a tip: when conflicted parties start attacking the person, rather than the problem or their actions, you are most certainly witnessing constructive conflict turning into a destructive one.

Conflict management - for managers

If done properly, conflict management can put one of the conflicted parties in the position of power, allowing them to “attack” and “withdraw” at proper times, thus keeping them in the control of the entire process.

However, for managers, the true purpose of conflict management is to find a solution that will prevent conflicts within the team altogether. According to the paper entitled Constructive Conflict by Mary Parker Follet, there are three ways managers can handle conflict:

Dominance - the manager uses force and position of power to resolve the conflict, usually allowing one side to win. Even though this approach is very effective short-term, it can prove to be highly counterproductive in the long run.

Compromise - finding the middle ground, the manager has all conflicted parties give up on something for the sake of conflict resolution. This approach often leaves many participants unsatisfied, as they had to give up something they considered valuable.

Integration - manager tries to incorporate fundamental desires or interests of all sides into the solution. Even though it sounds great, implementing this approach is a challenging and time-consuming task which can be realized to the fullest only on rare occasions.

However, before they choose the way to handle conflict, managers are advised to create a “conflict roadmap.”

Conflict mapping

One of the best conflict maps was conceived and realized by Paul Wehr, the professor at the University of Colorado. He claims that years of researching have proven that each conflict has certain core elements which allow managers to produce a roadmap - a tool that will enable them to find their way through a particular conflict.

It may not be the fastest, but it is the most thorough way to handle the conflict within your team.

To make the “conflict roadmap”, you will have to determine the following:

Conflict Context: gather information about the history of the conflict and its physical and organizational settings. Note why and where it happened, and what the argument actually is about.

Involved Parties: There are three party levels: primary parties (who oppose one another and have direct stake in the outcome); secondary parties (allies and sympathizers of primary parties, who have indirect stake in the outcome); and third parties (usually mediators, with no stake in the outcome). Designate which members belong to which party. It will allow you to get an overhead view of alliances and clicks.

Causes and Consequences: As a conflict emerges, cause and consequence tend to blend, claims Wehr. Causes of conflict are different and can vary from hostility, interests incompatibility to cultural and language differences. Often, one will derive from another: the pair that was fighting over differences of opinion on particular facts now fights out of pure hostility, which took their conflict to the whole new level. (Depending on the seriousness of the cause, you should adopt the approach: for example, deep hatred is not handled by domination).

Goals and Interests: “Goals” are acknowledged objectives of conflicted parties, while “interests” are what motivates the parties. By mapping out the conflict, you can help opposing sides distinguish their “goals” from their true “interests”. This will enable them to understand each other better and unify all their goals and interests.

Dynamics: Fact of the matter is: conflict is constantly moving and changing - usually for the worse. Different conflict dynamics require different approaches. For example, escalated conflict is not handled in the same way as the conflict in early stages.

Functions: List all positive consequences of the conflict, for all opposing parties. If a manager is aware of all potential positive outcomes and results, they may find alternative ways to produce them. Ultimately, this approach should transform the conflict into cooperative resolution.

Regulation Potential: How to handle conflict at hand? Should you try to resolve it by yourself, or maybe introduce a mediator? When thinking about the regulation potential (or the way conflict should be handled), focus on “limiting factors”. There are two types of limiting factors: Internal (such as the simple wish of the parties to maintain their relationship); and external (such as law or higher authority that might be introduced). Analyse them and use them to the team’s advantage.

Once you complete a conflict roadmap, you can use it in a number of ways: each party can use it on its own (to clarify the conflict from their perspective), or everyone can get a glimpse (so both sides can present their view of the conflict).

If you choose to relieve your roadmap to a third party (such as a mediator), they could use it to interview the conflict parties, ask them to modify it from their perspectives, and present it as the first step toward resolution.

To find out more details about Wehr’s conflict mapping, click here.

5 Styles of conflict management for participants

When we talk about conflict management, most people first think about “Thomas Kilmann conflict mode instrument” or TKI. The research of before mentioned Kenneth Thomas and his colleague Ralph Kilmann in the 1970’s helped them identify five styles in which different individuals handle conflict.

Essentially, each of us has their approach to conflict resolvement. However, using the same method will not resolve all conflicts successfully. The magic formula is to develop a flexible toolkit of techniques and learn to recognize the situation to implement the right one.

But what are the five different styles Kenneth Thomas has identified? It is best to show it to you by using a simple picture:

Several ways on how to handle Conflicts Within the Team

And then explain it using words. And we will sort it from least recommendable to most recommendable.

Avoiding (We both lose)

This is probably the worst approach to handling conflict because it all boils down to avoiding it altogether. Individuals that use this approach tend to accept decisions and requests of their supervisors without question, and often delegate difficult decisions and tasks (if they ever find themselves in the position of power).

Essentially, this utterly unassertive and uncooperative approach benefits no one as none of the parties included gets what they want. And even though this passive approach can be useful on rare occasions, try to avoid it.

Good if:

  • There are a lot of stirred emotions about an insignificant issue;
  • The solution is on the horizon and conflict will inevitably resolve itself;

Bad if:

  • There is a real danger of the conflict escalating;
  • The issue in question is of major importance for your team;

Accommodating (You win, I lose)*

And while “Avoidance” is a tendency to keep status quo, “Accommodating” relies on satisfying the needs of others, at the expense of your own.

Individuals who lean toward this approach tend to be either very indulgent or have a high empathy. “Accommodating” approach can be beneficial in certain situations but is ultimately regarded as very ineffective.

Good if:

  • Staying on good terms with your teammate is more important than winning;
  • The issue at hand means more to the other party than to yourself;

Bad if:

  • Accommodating the other party will NOT solve the problem;
  • If the issue is important to you;

Compromising (Nobody wins, nobody loses)

By compromising, you don’t win, but you get to resolve conflict quickly, without losing much. This approach requires both sides to give up something so they can gain something - and usually, nobody is happy with what they get. Similarly to “Avoiding” and “Accommodating”, this approach is precious in certain situations.

Good if:

  • There is a clash of equal powers (same level managers of two different teams);
  • Time is important but not crucial;
  • Resolving the conflict is more important than winning;

Bad if:

  • If one party has more influence than the other;
  • There are a lot of different needs that need to be satisfied;
  • The situation is extremely urgent, and further quarreling can harm solution’s effectiveness;

Competing (I win, you lose)

Unlike “Accommodating”, with the “Competing” approach, you take a firm stand on the topic at hand and do your best to force your way. You can do this by either using strong arguments or relying on a position of power to get what you want.

Individuals who use this approach are usually influential, stubborn, loud and with a lot of credibility within the company. They see each conflict as “a battle for dominance” and can be very aggressive during discussions.

Although this technique is excellent when you want your team to make urgent and unpopular decisions, this approach has more than just few downsides.

Any man who must say “I am the king” is no true king. - Tywin Lannister.

Good if:

  • You need to make urgent decisions
  • There is a need for making an unpopular decision;
  • You feel that someone is trying to hassle you and take advantage of the situation;

Bad if:

  • Decision at question is not urgent;
  • Another party loses much more than you gain;
  • You rely on buying-in other members;

Collaborating (We both win)

“Collaborating” approach is the pinnacle of conflict handling, being both assertive and cooperative. It requires high emotional intelligence of all participants and willingness to come up with unique win-win solutions. However, this type of solution demands not only time but emotional detachment and rational thinking as well, which is hardly achievable during intense conflicts. Therefore “Collaborating” is somewhat difficult to realize.

Good if:

  • The situation is not urgent, but requires immediate attention;
  • Decision is important and influences all involved parties heavily;
  • Decision impacts people other than the ones involved in the conflict;
  • All previous conflict resolution attempts failed;

Bad if:

  • Making the decision is urgent;
  • Involved parties do not care about the matter at hand.

There are official tests that can help you determine your (or your team members) behavior in conflict situations, and it looks something like this. It will give you an insight into the ways you handle conflict, and which areas you need to strengthen to become “conflict master”.

Resolving the conflict

The best kind of conflict is a productive one. However, if your team is unable to maintain constructive conflict, preventing confrontation altogether would be the best move to make. By managing conflicts skillfully, you can:

  • gain cooperation from team members
  • improve performance and productivity,
  • reduce stress and preserve the integrity,
  • improve relationships and teamwork,
  • increase staff morale

Overall, it is complicated but highly rewarding skill, which will boost your team’s morale and productivity to a whole another level.


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