Teams are complex entities that experience conflicts. Team conflict can have different causes, and you should do your best to understand them. Understanding the conflict will allow you to determine which type of approach is best in a given situation. Whether you're dealing with a top-down conflict or something is happening within your team, resolving conflict is of the utmost importance.
When it comes to finding the solution for team conflicts, the most valuable player is the team itself. Because of that, team cohesion and other factors play an essential role in determining which course of action is required to resolve the conflict. Teams with a high level of cohesion can even benefit from team conflicts when they arise. Therefore, conflicts can provide an excellent opportunity for growth and should not always be avoided, stifled, or ignored.
Team conflicts are multi-faceted and extremely complex, but an effective mediation starts at the very foundations of the conflict. The team itself can turn these conflicts into valuable opportunities.
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There are different approaches to studying team conflicts and finding their source. Still, most of them can be broadly sorted into two main categories: intra-group and organizational these can be broadly classified into two categories: intra-group and organizational. On the one hand, the research considers the sources of team conflict on the individual and interpersonal levels. In their comprehensive meta-analysis of intrapersonal conflict, De Wit, Greer, and Jehn (2012) identify three primary sources of conflict in teams: task conflict, relationship conflict, and process conflict.
Types of team conflict
Task conflict: conflict because of what
As the name suggests, the task conflicts revolve around the particular task given to a team. It's about the process behind the decision made by the team concerning this specific task.
This type of conflict arises from differences in ideas and views regarding the task, and it can sometimes even stem from disagreements on what needs to be done in the first place. These task conflicts are less destructive when they're isolated, for example, when they're not in collision with other conflict types.
Relationship conflict: conflict because of who
Relationship conflicts are about team members' relationships with each other. It includes differences involving different preferences, attitudes, and personal and interpersonal styles. This type of conflict is most likely to be destructive for teams because it's often linked to negative emotions, hostility, and personal dislike. These are not only destructive, but also distracting. For some scholars, relationship conflict is a shadow of task conflict. In essence, they claim that the quality of intergroup relationships is linked to the ability to solve tasks together.
Process conflict: conflict because of how
Process conflicts are all about the delegation of tasks and the process through which team tasks are solved. Put simply, it all comes down to the logistics of completing a task. Conflicts arise when there are disagreements over the task distribution and assigning accountability and deciding how a task should be completed. Process conflict is often considered as the worst form of intergroup conflict: it's not only linked to a specific task, the issue is often linked to disagreements about who gets to make decisions and control resources.
When going beyond intergroup conflict, there's a team conflict embedded into a broader organizational dynamics. In essence, the conflict arises when a team and an organization mutually influence each other. This means that intrapersonal conflicts cannot be viewed in isolation.
Status conflict: conflict because of who is where
There's no denying that the social hierarchy within an organization can be a source of conflict. It's natural for teams to form social hierarchies, which lead to power struggles over social esteem and control over decisions, resources, and rewards. This form of conflict is structural and often challenging to identify and tackle because there's rarely any interest in conflict outcomes. Instead, people strive for the broader achievement of a social position or function, leading them to go beyond the team.
Organizational conflict: conflict because of structure
This conflict source refers to the actual makeup of an organization and the rules, norms, and values it represents. Organizations with limited knowledge, various cultural values and traditions, and different work ethics and visions are less likely to engage in negotiation processes. They will rather act unilaterally and forcefully. On the other hand, organizations with similar working styles, values, and goals are more likely to communicate, negotiate, and seek compromise and conflict resolution.
Managing team conflict
1. Define Acceptable Behavior
Having a definition of what behavior is acceptable is a definitive step in avoiding conflict. Creating an organizational framework that encourages sound business practices in collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management will work wonders when it comes to resolving conflicts and avoiding them in the first place. Another way to prevent conflicts is to have a well-defined chain of command where every position is clearly defined so that people know what's expected of them and how they fit in.
2. Hit Conflict Head-on
Although there's no way always to prevent conflicts, the secret to conflict resolution is often to prevent the conflict from arising in the first place. By keeping a close look at potential conflict areas, you can proactively and decisively intervene to prevent certain conflicts from ever occurring. If these conflicts do happen, you will likely minimize the consequences, by quickly and swiftly dealing with them. Therefore, it is essential to spend time identifying and understanding natural tensions within the team to avoid unnecessary conflict.
3. "What's In It For Me" Factor
Understanding the other professionals' WIIFM (What's In It For Me) position is critical for preventing and resolving conflicts. It's essential to understand other's motivations before making your move. A simple way to avoid conflicts is to help your team members work towards achieving their personal. When you approach the conflict resolution with the perspective that will guide your actions to help others, there'll be very few obstacles that will stand in your way.
4. The Importance Factor
Choose your battles wisely and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. If the issue at hand is important enough to mandate a conflict, it's safe to assume the issue is important enough to resolve. If the circumstances are right and there is enough at stake, people will do their best to communicate and close positional or possibly philosophical gaps.
5. View Conflicts as Opportunities
A tremendous learning opportunity is often hidden behind virtually every conflict in any working organization. Disagreement is a breeding ground for exchanging ideas, which can lead to growth and development. If you're a team leader that doesn't leverage conflict for professional development or team-building purposes, you're missing a huge opportunity. When addressed properly, differences in opinion can stimulate innovation and organizational learning, as no other activity can. A good leader will look for the positives in every situation when they're presented with differing opinions.
Difficulties teams face while managing conflict
Research has shown that behavior leading to avoiding all team conflicts has negative effects on teams as a whole. Not only does avoiding conflicts aggravate existing differences, but it also stifles the team's overall potential. The possibilities are hidden in conflict resolution, and the evaluation of causes and opportunities is not tapped into.
This points to the underlying positive effect of conflicts: addressing conflict helps deal with the team's underlying issues. Managing these issues can help all teams collaborate better together in the long run. However, many teams often avoid conflicts, and not all teams can appropriately address their issues.
In situations such as these, it makes sense to look at the broader context and consider a broader intervention to work on team cohesion, develop entirely new teams, or even go as far as changing the organizational structure. Whatever the case, there's no denying that conflicts can be a great agent for change management, and we recommend our readers to view them accordingly.