Managing Work Team Conflict: Assessment and Preventative Strategies
Managing Work Team Conflict:
Assessment and Preventative Strategies
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:
- 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.
- Two individual team members are in conflict with each other.
- A team member experiences conflict with all of the other team members.
- The majority or the entire team is in conflict with an individual team member.
- Several team members are in conflict with several other team members.
- The entire team experiences conflict with another team.
- 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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- 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).
- Team members have different attitudes that result in different goals for team members.
- Team members have different needs that are not met, which result in frustration that exacerbates conflict.
- Various expectations of the team members are not met and result in conflict.
- Team members have different perceptions or worldviews that result in differing interpretations of the same information.
- Limited resources often result in an increase in conflict (see also Kezsbom, 1992)
- Team members have different personalities that clash with each other.
Rayeski and Bryant (1994) also suggests that "…conflict is driven by pressure and confusion…[that] creates stressful situations for the team and its members" (p. 217).
In addition, Kezsbom (1992) did a study in which 285 managers and specialists of technology Fortune 500 companies rank ordered 1921 conflict sources. Thirteen conflict categories were used and were also ranked from the highest to the lowest ranked conflict sources, including: goal and priority definition, personality, communication (see also Townsley, 1997), politics, administrative procedures, resource allocation, scheduling, leadership, ambiguous roles/structure, costs, reward structure, technical opinions, and unresolved prior conflicts. This study showed the importance of how certain conflict sources compared to other conflict sources.
Furthermore, other researchers suggest that competitive goals can promote conflict avoidance or even increase conflict escalation, resulting in low morale and productivity (Tjosvold, 1986; Tjosvold, 1989; Tjosvold, Dann, & Wong, 1992). For example, salespeople recognize the importance of working with others in the company to provide quality service to their customers. Since one person does not have all of the authority, resources, or information to meet the needs of the customers, cooperation and working in harmony with others is expected but is not always practiced (Barrett, 1986; Tjosvold et al., 1992).
According to Tjosvold and colleagues (1992), those who are competitive tend to be closed minded and reject other people’s ideas and propositions, resulting in unresolved conflict (i.e., failing to reach consensus or agreement). Interviews with managers of telecommunications company in British Columbia reveals that cooperation comes from compatible objectives, and competition comes from incompatible objectives (Tjosvold et al., 1992). Tjosvold (1986 & 1991b) describes cooperative goals as coming from a shared vision, activities that require teamwork and coordination, understanding, and complementary roles. However, competitive conflict promotes closed-minded activities, inefficiency, low confidence, and little progress. Contrary to the assumption that conflict occurs within competitive settings, conflict is found in highly cooperative environments since the setting is conducive to addressing conflicts (Tjosvold et al., 1992). Overall, conflict management is critical to the company’s effectiveness to serve the needs of customers (Tjosvold, 1991a; Tjosvold et al., 1992) that also results in benefiting employees and supervisors (Tjosvold, Morshima, & Belsheim, 1999).
If the conflict is not managed properly, it can lead to dysfunction and disaster (Amason et al., 1996; Bens, 1997). Conflict results in disaster because people lack the skills to deal effectively with it (Townsley, 1997). In addition, many teams and team facilitators do not plan adequately for dealing with conflict (Bens, 1999; Townsley).
Researchers agree that how the conflict is managed, will determine whether the conflict is constructive or destructive. Bens (1997) recommends that teams need to become educated and learn the differences between healthy debates and dysfunctional arguments. According to Bens, healthy debates include: being open to other people’s ideas, listening and responding to different ideas from other team members, understanding other peoples’ views, staying objective (see also Capozzoli, 1995), staying focused on the facts, and systematically analyzing the situation to find solutions and closure without getting bogged down in tangential details.
Similarly, Tjosvold et al., (1999) have found that direct, open discussion of disagreements result in greater understanding of other people’s ideas and motivates one to question the accuracy and completeness of one’s own views. That is, open discussion allows people to see the limitations of their own perspectives. Thus, people are then better able to understand opposing views and different ideas by considering other people’s perspectives or ideas (Tjosvold, 1985a; 1991a). As a result, these people are able to incorporate their own ideas with the best and most reliable information from others, which result in higher quality decisions (Tjosvold, 1982; Tjosvold & Deemer, 1980; Tjosvold & Field, 1984; Tjosvold et al., 1999).
Bens (1997) describes dysfunctional arguments are characterized by: black and white thinking where people assume that they are right and others are wrong, no acknowledgement or response to other peoples’ ideas, a lack of interest in how the other members see the situation or issue, personal attacks and blaming others, and hot topics are allowed to be haphazardly hashed out in an unstructured and unplanned. A team facilitator can either encourage a healthy debate or allow a dysfunctional argument depending on how the facilitator handles the conflict (Bens). Bens also recommends the following ways a facilitator can encourage a constructive healthy debate:
- identify and examine the differences to gain understanding of all perspectives (see also Capozzoli, 1995)
- having a rule that everyone must listen politely
- having people paraphrase each other people’s ideas
- openly address the concerns of the team or the individuals
- openly address problem-solving concerns
- inviting constructive face-to-face feedback
- being assertive as a facilitator
- aim to get closure and move on to the next issue
Managing Destructive Conflict
Fisher et al. (1995) recommend five steps to resolve conflict that includes:
- recognizing that the conflict exists
- finding common ground by putting the conflict in the context of the larger goal of the team and the organization
- understanding all the perspectives of the issue, which means that everyone is not required to agree with the opposing views (see also Capozzoli, 1995)
- attacking the issue and not the members of the team (see also Capozzoli, 1995)
- developing an action plan that describes how each member of the team will solve the problem or issue (see also Capozzoli, 1995).
While following these steps, Fisher and his colleagues also recommend avoiding certain traps that worsen conflict:
- avoid forcing team members to choose among given options or limiting the alternatives
- avoid becoming too dependent on management to resolve issues/problems simply because dealing with conflict is painful
- avoid the temptation to ignore conflicts altogether
- prevent individual team members from giving into the group, who later act as though they are victims of group pressure (see also Bens, 1997)
- prevent team members from talking about team issues outside of the team setting because such issues should have been discussed within the team meeting/settings.
Thus, these methods of managing conflict direct the conflict to be constructive and beneficial by focusing on the task types of conflict while minimizing affect types conflict.
Preventative Strategies to Manage Conflict
According to Bens (1999), it is best if the team plans early on to deal with conflict from becoming destructive by planning to use the following eight preventive strategies:
- having a proper team launch (e.g., introductions of team members, develop a common team goal and objectives, communication plans)
- having the proper training in new skills required to function as a team (e.g., facilitation skills, meeting management, decision making, systematic problem solving, conflict management) (see also Kazsbom, 1992)
- developing and using team norms or rules to manage the team members’ behaviors by posting these rules for all to see so that members can catch each other’s poor behaviors
- educating the team members about the stages of team development so that members understand that certain activities are a normal part of the team’s development; this can be enhanced by breaking down the team into triads to discuss and generate preventative strategies and asking:
- What action should be taken if the team experiences confusion about the team goal, objectives, roles, or empowerment?
- If interpersonal conflicts occur, what should be done within the team meeting and what should be done outside of team meetings?
- What should be done if meetings start to make little, if any progress?
- What should be done if the team starts to experience frustration and general dissatisfaction?
- What should be done about the team’s concerns about the team leader or facilitator?
- identifying things that blocks the team performance early, rather than later when the problems or concerns become overwhelming; this can be done by setting aside at least a half hour of the team meeting to identify and address barriers that the team is facing:
- What is working for the team? What is helping the team be the most effective?
- What is getting in the way or is blocking the team from performing optimally?
- properly using feedback among team members on a regular basis (e.g., about every 6 months or less) about any interpersonal things that are preventing high team performance, which can be done anonymously or openly (depending on the atmosphere of the team), by asking:
- What are you doing that is effective?
- What could you be doing that is more effective?
- properly using feedback for the team leader or facilitator that can be done anonymously or use some other form to provide the leader information on what the team needs from him or provide support to him or her
- regularly monitoring (e.g., every 6 to 8 weeks) the effectiveness of team meetings and the team.
These strategies can help prevent conflict from dominating the team, and it can get the team to focus on their goals and objectives. Yet, team members need to assume that it is natural for teams to experience some challenging problems or trouble areas (Bens, 1999). Bens (1997) also encourages people to change the way they view conflict by viewing it "…as a positive sign that people care about the issue and have the energy to put toward solutions" (p. 83; see also Fisher et al., 1995).
Similarly, Capozzoli (1995) recommends using positive conflict resolution process, which overlaps with some of the recommendations discussed earlier. Other things to consider, include:
- making sure that each team member understands his or her responsibilities to solve the problem by having each member write down his or her responsibilities
- having the team practice conflict resolution skills.
- keeping solution options open
- allowing and encouraging the team members to use conflict management strategies, instead of squelching such practices.
Furthermore, Kazsbom (1992) recommends that teams communicate often by:
- having frequent and effective upward and downward communication within the organization so that the team has accurate information and feedback from the organization to meet the needs of the organization (e.g., scheduling, forecasts, and organizational priorities)
- having frequent and productive team meetings or status review sessions to increase communication among the various functions of the team and the organization.
Kazsbom also emphasizes that the organization should support an integrated team environment by including functional contributors and allowing them the opportunities to provide their input and knowledge.
Teams and Conflict Checklist (TACC)
After reviewing the conflict management literature, a conflict checklist measure, called Teams and Conflict Checklist or TACC (see Appendix A), was developed. TACC can be used as a tool to help teams identify whether their teams are experiencing overall conflict as well as the two types of conflict discussed in this paper (i.e., affect and task conflict). Each item on the TACC was created based on the research on conflict in general as well as affect and task conflict using a Likert scale from one to six (i.e., where 1 = strongly agree and 6 = strongly disagree).
An even numbered Likert scale is used because it forces the rater to weigh their response away from the middle. Moreover, an even numbered Likert scale provides more information than allowing a midpoint to mean the middle. Sometimes, raters may misinterpret the midpoint (e.g., interpreting the midpoint as "not applicable"). Therefore, an even numbered Likert scale is used instead of an odd numbered Likert scale.
Scoring the TACC is basically summing the points endorsed for each statement for each section: general, affect, and task conflict. Each of the sums is then divided by the total number of items for their respective sections. That is, the sum for general conflict is divided by 14, the sum for affect conflict is divided by 11, and the sum for task conflict is divided by 10), resulting in three separate scores that range from 1 to 6 (i.e., where 1 = no conflict is perceived and 6 = extremely high conflict is perceived). Overall, the lower the number, the less conflict is perceived, but the higher the number, the more conflict is perceived.
For scoring purposes, reverse scoring is required for certain numbers in each section to take into account the raters’ consistency in responding as well as items that vary the raters’ responses. That is, numbers 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, and 12 should be reversed for general conflict. For affect conflict, reverse scoring for numbers 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 is required, and for task conflict, items 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 should be reversed. For example, if item number 2 for affect conflict is marked 1, then a 6 should be summed instead of 1. Each score for each type of conflict uses the same scale to allow easier comparison with each other and to see what kind of conflict is perceived the most.
All of the team members can complete the TACC, and an average can be obtained to reflect the average perception of conflict for the entire team. However, it would be helpful to look at the range (i.e., highest and lowest scores) and the median (i.e., midpoint) and the mode (i.e., the most common response). This would allow the team to see how members of the team differ in their perceptions of conflict.
TACC or some other conflict management checklist should be used early in the developing team to determine what type of conflict is perceived. It should also be reused periodically to monitor the kind of conflict the team is experiencing since the type of conflict may shift as the team develops. By identifying the type of conflict that the team is experiencing, the team, facilitators, or team leaders can use the suggested strategies in this paper to reduce affect conflict and refocus the attention toward task conflict in order to benefit from the task conflict.
Strategies that enhance task-related conflict and reduce affect-related conflict are the best ways to increase the potential benefits instead of increasing the negative consequences from avoiding conflict altogether. Planning also prevents conflict from becoming unmanageable. Furthermore, TACC or some other conflict checklist should be used early and often during the team’s development to identify the type of conflict so that it can be managed appropriately. Although conflict is an inevitable aspect of team development, it can provide the basis for constructive and beneficial outcomes by identifying and managing conflict effectively.
Teams and Conflict Checklist (TACC)
Instructions: Mark how much you agree or disagree to each statement utilizing the following scale.
- When conflict occurs, it is not acknowledged.
- The team avoids all types of conflict.
- Everyone gets along with everyone else.
- Most or all of the team members do not get along with a particular team member.
- The team understands the purpose of the group.
- The team is able to recognize conflict when it occurs.
- Team members do not communicate well with each other.
- The team is ineffective at handling conflict.
- The team gets along with other teams.
- The team does not understand the goal(s) of the group.
- The team is effective at managing conflict.
- The team has difficulty getting along with other teams.
- The team communicates well each other.
- The team does not avoid conflict.
- Personal attacks do not occur among team members.
- Members are openly or covertly embarrassed, ridiculed, insulted, or are put down.
- Team members respect each other.
- Team members blame others on the team.
- Team members attack the character of other team members.
- Team members do not engage in coercing other team members.
- Personality conflicts occur among two or more team members.
- Team members do not feel comfortable expressing themselves.
- Team members pressure other team members.
- Team members do not engage in blaming others.
- Team members are comfortable sharing their ideas or opinions openly.
- Disagreements focus on the issue.
- Understanding differing views is not encouraged.
- Team members see conflict as discouraging and unproductive.
- Team members listen to other team members.
- Team discussions get side tracked or go off in all different directions.
- Team members engage in destructive arguments.
- Conflict is viewed positively.
- Team members do not listen to one another.
- Understanding team members’ opinions is encouraged.
- A healthy debate occurs.
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