As organizations continue to restructure 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 organisations restructure to work teams the need for training in conflict resolution will continue to grow. 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 . 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 organisation, 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 organisational 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. Negative conflict can destroy a team quickly, and often arises from poor planning.
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 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.
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. Each can be used effectively in different circumstances.
1.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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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; energising people to seek a superior solution; and fostering integration of several ideas to create high-quality solutions. 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 increase the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the team through the increased interest and energy that often accompanies it. This in turn fosters creativity and intensity among team members. In addition, bringing differences to the surface can result in better ideas and more innovative solutions. When people share their views and strive toward reaching a consensus, better decisions are reached. Team members also improve their communication skills and become better at understanding and listening to the information they receive when differences are freely aired.
Tips on improving listening skills:
Listening for Meaning
Understanding is not agreeing. Seek clarification before responding, if needed.
Apply listening skills when receiving a message.
Evaluate yourself for how well you listened at the end of any conversation.
The tension of well-managed conflict allows teams to confront disagreement through healthy discussion and improve the decisions made .This leads to greater team efficiency and effectiveness. Effectively managing conflict allows teams to stay focused on their goals. Swift and constructive conflict management leads to a broader understanding of the problem, healthy expression of different ideas or alternatives, and creates excitement from the positive interaction and involvement which will help the team through periods of transition and on to greater levels of performance.
Team Resolution Process
Conflict should first be handled on an informal basis between the individuals involved. This, they say, will allow time for resolution or self-correction by the individuals. If the conflict remains unsettled, a mediator can be brought in to help resolve the situation. If resolution is still not achieved the dispute should be openly discussed in a team meeting. A formal discipline process needs to occur, if resolution is not achieved after being addressed at the team level. The escalating process of Team Resolution is as follows:
1. Collaboration (One-on-one): Handle the new problem person-to-person. Use as many facts as possible and relate the issue to customer, team, or organizational needs. Be open and honest and conduct the session in a private setting. Document the concerns or issues, the dates, and the resolution, if any, and have both parties sign it.
2. Mediation (One-on-one with Mediator): If collaboration did not work or was inappropriate, handle the problem with a mediator. The mediator must be trained in conflict resolution, understand policy and ethics, be trusted by the team, and have the ability to remain neutral. Gather facts and talk over the issue with the people involved. Bring up as many facts as possible and relate the issue to customer, team, or organizational needs. Be open and honest and conduct the mediation session in private. Document it and have all parties sign.
3. Team Counseling: The conflict is now a definite issue to the team. Collaboration and/or Mediation could not be done, were not appropriate, or did not work. Handle the conflict at a team meeting; put the problem on the next agenda and invite the necessary individuals. Again, bring up the facts, relate the issue to customer, team, or organisational needs. Be open and honest, discuss it in a private setting, document it, and have all parties sign it. Anyone on the team can put an issue or problem on the team agenda, however, this step should be used only after Collaboration, and Mediation has been ruled out.
Because every team is different, disputes that arise will be too.
The Five-P’s of Conflict Management:
1. Perceptions: People associate conflict with negative responses such as anger, fear, tension, and anxiety. Rarely do we perceive any benefits from being involved in a dispute. Our negative perceptions impact our approach in resolving conflict as we strive to eliminate the source of these negative feelings.
2. Problems: Anyone can be involved in a conflict, and the amount of time, money, and equipment needed for resolution will vary according to its complexity.
3. Processes: There are different ways to go about resolving disputes: Suppress the conflict, give in, fight, litigate, mediate, etc.
4. Principles: We determine the priorities of all resolution processes on the basis of an analysis of our fundamental values regarding efficiency, participation, fairness, compliance, etc.
5. Practices: Power, self-interest, and unique situations are all factors relating to why people resolve disputes the way they do.
What is the problem, as you perceive it?
What does the other person do that contributes to the problem?
What do you want or need from the other person?
What do you do that contributes to the problem?
What first step can you take to resolve the problem?
Each party should be questioned while the other listens, asking questions only for clarification. Then the parties discuss a mutual definition and understanding of the problem. They should be allowed to express their feelings and get hostility out of their systems at this stage, but both parties must be willing to admit partial responsibility for the problem. This requires good listening, low defensiveness, and an ability to stay in a problem-solving mode. Agreement should be reached on what steps will be taken to resolve the problem, and should be put in writing in order to prevent later misunderstandings.
For individuals to work effectively in teams they must be able to clearly communicate their ideas, to listen, and be willing to disagree. Although it is difficult, learning to appreciate each other’s differences reflects a team’s ability to manage conflict. When conflict occurs we must not turn our backs and hope it will go away. Instead, we must learn to tolerate it, even welcome it, for well-managed conflict can be the source of change and innovation. As more and more organisations attempt to make the difficult transition to teams, they must develop and provide programs for their /employees which offer training in conflict management skills and techniques. I hope the ideas in this paper can help organisations and their teams begin, or continue, this challenging task.