Resolving Conflict In Work Teams
(Carole A. Townsley)
Resolving Conflict in Work Teams
by Carole A. Townsley
As organizations continue to restructure to work teams, the need for training in conflict resolution will grow. Conflict arises from differences, and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict. To avoid the negative consequences that can result from disagreements, most methods of resolving conflict stress the importance of dealing with disputes quickly and openly. Conflict is not necessarily destructive, however. When managed properly, conflict can result in benefits for a team.
Resolving Conflict in Work Teams
A major advantage a Team has over an individual is its diversity of resources, knowledge, and ideas. However, diversity also produces conflict. As more and more organizations restructure to work teams the need for training in conflict resolution will continue to grow. Varney (1989) reports that conflict remained the number-one problem for most of the teams operating within a large energy company, even after repeated training sessions on how to resolve conflict and how to minimize the negative impact on team members. One reason for this may be that mangers and other leaders within organizations are not giving the issue of resolving conflict enough attention. Varney''s research showed that although most managers are aware of disagreements and have received training in conflict resolution, they seldom assign a high priority to solving conflict problems. With this in mind, it is critical that team members possess skills to resolve conflict among themselves.
Conflict arises from differences. When individuals come together in work teams their differences in terms of power, values and attitudes, and social factors all contribute to the creation of conflict. It is often difficult to expose the sources of conflict. Conflict can arise from numerous sources within a team setting and generally falls into three categories: communication factors, structural factors and personal factors (Varney, 1989). Barriers to communication are among the most important factors and can be a major source of misunderstanding. Communication barriers include poor listening skills; insufficient sharing of information; differences in interpretation and perception; and nonverbal cues being ignored or missed. Structural disagreements include the size of the organization, turnover rate, levels of participation, reward systems, and levels of interdependence among employees. Personal factors include things such as an individual''s self-esteem, their personal goals, values and needs. In order for conflict to be dealt with successfully, managers and team members must understand its unpredictability and its impact on individuals and the team as a whole.
Conflict in work teams is not necessarily destructive, however. Conflict can lead to new ideas and approaches to organizational processes, and increased interest in dealing with problems. Conflict, in this sense, can be considered positive, as it facilitates the surfacing of important issues and provides opportunities for people to develop their communication and interpersonal skills. Conflict becomes negative when it is left to escalate to the point where people begin to feel defeated, and a combative climate of distrust and suspicion develops (Bowditch & Buono, 1997). Nelson (1995) cautions that negative conflict can destroy a team quickly, and often arises from poor planning. He offers this list of high potential areas from which negative conflict issues commonly arise:
Administrative Procedures: If the team lacks good groundwork for what it''s doing, its members will not be able to coordinate their work.
People Resources: If the team does not have enough resources to do the job, it is inevitable that some will carry too heavy a load. Resentment, often unexpressed, may build,so it is crucial that team leaders ensure adequate resources.
Cost overruns: Often inevitable, cost overruns become a problem when proper measures are not taken. The whole team should know early on when cost becomes a problem so additional funding can be sought by the team. This way the problem can be resolved before it grows into a problem for management.
Schedules: The schedule is highly consequential to the team''s project and should be highly visible. All members should be willing to work together to help each other meet their deadlines.
Responsibilities: Each team member must know what areas are assigned and who is accountable for them.
Wish Lists: Stick to the project at hand and avoid being sidetracked into trying to fit other things into it. Wait and do the other things you would like to do after successful completion of the original project.
Team members can and should attempt to avoid negative conflict from occurring. Being aware of the potential for negative conflict to occur, and taking the necessary steps to ensure good planning will help.
Handling Negative Conflict
When negative conflict does occur there are five accepted methods for handling it: Direct Approach, Bargaining, Enforcement, Retreat, and De-emphasis (Nelson, 1995). Each can be used effectively in different circumstances.
Direct Approach: This may be the best approach of all. It concentrates on the leader confronting the issue head-on. Though conflict is uncomfortable to deal with, it is best to look at issues objectively and to face them as they are. If criticism is used, it must be constructive to the recipients. This approach counts on the techniques of problem-solving and normally leaves everyone with a sense of resolution, because issues are brought to the surface and dealt with.
Bargaining: This is an excellent technique when both parties have ideas on a solution yet cannot find common ground. Often a third party, such as a team leader, is needed to help find the compromise. Compromise involves give and take on both sides, however, and usually ends up with both walking away equally dissatisfied.
Enforcement of Team Rules: Avoid using this method if possible, it can bring about hard feelings toward the leader and the team. This technique is only used when it is obvious that a member does not want to be a team player and refuses to work with the rest. If enforcement has to be used on an individual, it may be best for that person to find another team.
Retreat: Only use this method when the problem isn''t real to begin with. By simply avoiding it or working around it, a leader can often delay long enough for the individual to cool off. When used in the right environment by an experienced leader this technique can help to prevent minor incidents that are the result of someone having a bad day from becoming real problems that should never have occurred.
De-emphasis: This is a form of bargaining where the emphasis is on the areas of agreement. When parties realize that there are areas where they are in agreement, they can often begin to move in a new direction.
Managing Cooperative Conflict
Though we often view conflict through a negative lens, teams require some conflict to operate effectively. Cooperative conflict can contribute to effective problem solving and decision making by motivating people to examine a problem. Encouraging the expression of many ideas; energizing people to seek a superior solution; and fostering integration of several ideas to create high-quality solutions (Tjosvold, 1988). The key is to understand how to handle it constructively. If members understand how to do it, differences that arise can result in benefits for a team.
While it is true that suppressed differences can reduce the effectiveness of a team, when they are brought to the surface, disagreements can be dealt with and problems can be resolved. The actual process of airing differences can help to