Managing Work Team Conflict: Assessment and Preventative Strategies

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Managing Work Team Conflict:
Assessment and Preventative Strategies

Debbi Wagner-Johnson


Conflict cannot be avoided since it is an inevitable aspect of work teams. This paper will discuss the two types of conflict (i.e., affect and task) that the research has identified as the most common, describe the benefits and detriments of conflict, and present the causes of conflict. Strategies will also be presented to prevent and to effectively manage conflict. Moreover, a conflict checklist (i.e., Teams and Conflict Checklist or TACC) will be presented as a tool to help teams identify the perceived presence of conflict. Although conflict is an inevitable aspect of team development, conflict can provide the basis for constructive and beneficial outcomes by identifying and managing conflict effectively.

Managing Work Team Conflict: Assessment and Preventative Strategies

As long as organizations continue to use work teams, conflict cannot be avoided since it is an inevitable aspect of work teams (Amason, 1996; Amason, Thompson, Hochwarter, & Harrison, 1995; Bens, 1999; Capozzoli, 1995; Desivilya, 1998; Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeois, 1997; Fisher, Rayner, & Belgard, 1995; Jennsen, Van De Vliert, & Veenstra, 1999; Kezsbom, 1992; Rayeski & Bryant, 1994; Sessa, 1996; Townsley, 1997). If conflict is identified and is managed properly, it can actually benefit teams rather than be detrimental to them. The main purpose of this paper will be: to describe the various types of conflict that the research has identified, to distinguish the benefits and detriments of conflict, to describe the causes of conflict, to discuss ways to manage and to prevent conflict. Moreover, based on the literature review, a conflict checklist measure (i.e., Teams and Conflict Checklist or TACC) will be presented as a tool to help teams identify conflict and assess the severity of the conflict (see Appendix A).

Types of Conflict: Benefits and Detriments
Conflict is a "state of disharmony brought about by differences of impulses, desires, or tendencies" (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994, p. 217). According to Capozzoli (1995), conflict can be constructive if it changes and allows personality growth, results in solving the problem, increases the investment and involvement of the team members, and creates team cohesiveness. Few researchers describe how to identify conflict. Fisher and colleagues (1995) describe seven types of conflict that are based on the structural configuration of who is in conflict with whom:

  1. An individual team member is experiencing a personal issue or conflict that may or may not be related to the team but results in the person’s inability to perform optimally.
  2. Two individual team members are in conflict with each other.
  3. A team member experiences conflict with all of the other team members.
  4. The majority or the entire team is in conflict with an individual team member.
  5. Several team members are in conflict with several other team members.
  6. The entire team experiences conflict with another team.
  7. The entire team is experiencing conflict with an individual outside of the team.

The research literature tends to discuss two types of conflict based on either task or affect. The first type of conflict, often called cognitive conflict (see Amason et al., 1995), task-focused conflict (see Jehn, Chadwick, & Thatcher, 1997), or task conflict, (see Jennsen et al., 1999) tends to be issue-related disagreements among team members that focus on common objectives (Amason, 1996). Several researchers (Amason, 1996; Amason et al., 1995; Capozzoli, 1995; Jennsen et al., 1999) agree that this type of conflict tends to be constructive, functional, and beneficial by improving team effectiveness, increasing decision quality, satisfaction with the team, commitment, cohesiveness, empathy, creativity, understanding, and performance, while reducing complacency and apathy. Such beneficial conflict needs to be expressed and explored rather than ignored or avoided because of the potential creativity and advantages that can come from it (Amason et al., 1995; Capozzoli; Townsley, 1997).

However, the other type of conflict, known as affect conflict (Amason et al., 1995), relationship conflict (Jehn et al., 1997), or interpersonal conflict (Miranda & Bostrom, 1994), tends to be related to disagreements that come from personality clashes or emotional interactions among team members that are often perceived as personal attacks. This type of conflict tends to be considered destructive and dysfunctional if problem resolution is not achieved, energy is diverted from the pressing issue or activity, and team or individual morale is compromised (Capozzoli, 1995). Moreover, this conflict is considered disruptive because it can result in greater indecisiveness, increased polarity, reduced cohesiveness and consensus, while promoting hostility, distrust, cynicism, apathy, and disengagement among team members (Amason, 1996; Amason et al., 1995; Eisenhardt et al., 1997). Such conflict needs to be identified, discussed, and reduced before it gets out of control (Bens, 1999; Fisher et al., 1995), or before it results in "…an environment of fear and avoidance of the [issues]" (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994, p. 217).

Causes of Conflict
Once people are educated about the different types of conflict and understand that conflict can be constructive or destructive, they also need to understand what causes conflict. This understanding will allow the team to identify, prevent, and manage conflict most effectively. According to Capozzoli (1995), there are seven causes of conflict:

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  1. Team members bring culturally diverse values (i.e., diversity or differences in general) to their work teams (see also Amason, 1996; Kazsbom, 1992; Townsley, 1997).
  2. Team members have different attitudes that result in different goals for team members.
  3. Team members have different needs that are not met, which result in frustration that exacerbates conflict.
  4. Various expectations of the team members are not met and result in conflict.
  5. Team members have different perceptions or worldviews that result in differing interpretations of the same information.
  6. Limited resources often result in an increase in conflict (see also ...

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