Managing Conflict in Work Teams
The role of conflict in work teams is determined by the manner in which it
is managed. Conflict is a driving force of change that can result in
improved decision-making processes and progressive team development.
However, teams must learn to be confrontational without destroying the team
process. Teams are able to handle conflict and perform at a high level by
following a framework of communication needed for managing conflict
constructively. Teams capable of mediating their own conflicts, improve
both productivity and member relationships.
Managing Conflict in Work Teams
Teams are typically made up of a diverse group of individuals; each member
possessing different capabilities and skills. This element is what makes
the use of teams so advantageous; however, diversity can also create
conflict. Therefore, it is important for teams to understand the dynamics
of conflict and to regulate its natural flow. The following discussion
presents several conflict resolution methods and skills for managing team
conflict, while generating team growth, development, and an increased
quality of decision-making (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994).
Contrary to the common belief that conflict is limited to a disruptive
effect, a number of researchers acknowledge the substantial benefits of
conflict to team processes (for example, McDaniel, Littlejohn, & Domenici,
1998; Sessa, 1996). Conflict is a driving force of change (McDaniel et al.,
1998). When managed correctly, conflict produces the following results: new
ideas for changing organizational processes, solving of continuous
problems, a chance for workers to expand their capabilities, and the
introduction of creativity into thoughts about organizational problems
(Bowditch & Buono, 1997).
Unfortunately, these positive outcomes are frequently unattainable due to
uneducated, reactionary efforts to eliminate the source of conflict (Sessa,
1996). The consequences of poorly handled team conflict such as this are a
lowering of team energy, disruption of healthy relationships, and the
prevention of job accomplishment. Additionally, there is an avoidance of
the disputed subject and the creation of an environment of fear (Rayeski &
Bryant, 1994). Too often, conflict is smoothed over by a team leader and is
not resolved; the end result is a building up of resentment between team
members that deteriorates the teamís performance level (Wisinski, 1995).
The key issue in dealing with team conflict is for the team to realize that
the focus is not on conflict itself, but how it is managed. The idea behind
managing conflict is not to reduce conflict, but to handle it in a
constructive manner (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994). Teams must learn to be
confrontational without destroying the team process. Research indicates
that high performing teams are capable of mediating their own conflicts
while improving productivity and strengthening relationships (McDaniel et
Before the rise in the use of teams, classic literature (Coser, 1956)
studying group behavior acknowledged the importance of conflict in groups.
Coser (1956) states that both positive and negative factors contribute to
the formation of a group. A group that is devoid of conflict is a group
without process or structure. The life of a work group is dependent on this
need for conflict for the group to thrive and prosper, just as much as the
group relies on the need for cooperation (Coser, 1956). Current team
research (for example, McDaniel et al., 1998; Rayeski & Bryant, 1994)
extends this outlook toward the positive aspects of conflict and proposes
various methods by which teams may cultivate positive outcomes.
Team Conflict Resolution Methods
Team Mediation Process
McDaniel et al. (1998) offer a step by step mediation process for teams
dealing with conflict. This mediation process provides the work team with
skills and structure for mediating their own disputes. Using a simple
process framework for applying communication skills to a situation, team
members are able to manage conflict in a way that maintains and strengthens
the team environment. Each member must learn and commit themselves to a
consistent process for communicating and resolving conflicts with others.
The anticipated outcomes of this process are higher team performance
levels, less stress, and a more positive work environment (McDaniel et al.,
There are four requirements for effective implementation of this team
mediation process (McDaniel et al., 1998):
1. The first requirement is for each team member to be able to learn the
appropriate communication skills and the overall mediation process. If
a few team members do not make the effort to learn the skills
necessary for accepted communication, then the process is incapable of
working effectively. These communication skills include learning to
confront others, listening to otherís concerns, acknowledging opposing
perspectives, responding appropriately, and committing to a plan of
2. The next requirement is the individual certification of competency for
each memberís use of the mediation skills and understanding of the
process. Competency ratings are used in other areas of skill, such as
technical competencies, and are appropriate measures of interpersonal
conflict skill usage.
3. The third requirement for effective mediation implementation is an
environment in which the team is empowered to solve their own
conflicts. The team must have the authority to create and establish
its system of mediation. For example, the team begins to establish the
system by brainstorming over the ideas of conflict, the negative
results, and the positive outcomes for the team. Within this process,
the team defines agreed upon team values, expectations, and
procedures. This process is referred to as setting the "path" or
boundaries of acceptable behavior for the team. It is very important
for the team as a whole to enforce these behavioral boundaries when
they are crossed; the process is ineffective when an outside party is
expected to supply such reinforcement.
4. The fourth requirement ensures that once these first three
requirements are met, team members are expected to recognize and
resolve conflicts collectively. Team self-reliance for conflict
resolution ranges from situations involving only two members, to
complex situations, involving disagreement among all team members. The
proposed mediation process provides the team with the ability to
handle conflict at both extremes.
If a team meets the four prerequisites of this mediation process, the next
step is for all team members to participate in skill development training.
Within the training, team members learn how to coach one another through
the mediation process. They also practice applying communication skills to
increasingly difficult conflict scenarios. The training methods taken from
the skills training are centered around the conclusion that conflict can be
addressed through a three step cycle of concern, vision, and action
(McDaniel et al., 1998):
* The first step teaches the responsibility of both parties
participating in a dispute to understand the other personís concerns.
This requires the understanding of the emotions, needs, and reasons
behind the stated position of the opposition.
* The second step illustrates the importance of both parties envisioning
one anotherís view of a win-win solution for the team. Recognizing the
perspective of the team as whole is a critical element when arriving
at a fully accepted solution. This becomes a meeting point between the
two arguing parties.
* The third step is a commitment by both disputing sides to take the
appropriate actions to ensure the particular conflict will not
reoccur. These actions are stated by both parties, along with a
prescribed method for mediating the problem should it reoccur.
Team Resolution Process
Rayeski and Bryant (1994) suggest the use of the Team Resolution Process
for managing conflict in teams. The process allows the team to address
conflict as it occurs, thus providing the team with self-sufficient methods
for handling disagreement on their own. However, if the conflict escalates
beyond the individual control of the team members, an outside mediator is
brought in to resolve the dispute. The desired outcome of the team
resolution process is to produce a team environment in which there is
"creative tension." Creative tension develops in an environment in which
well-managed conflict leads to healthy team discussions and quality
decision-making (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994).
Team Resolution Process is defined by Rayeski and Bryant (1994) as, "the
process by which an individual, when provided an opportunity for
improvement, accepts and makes a conscious, personal commitment to act upon
this opportunity to enhance their performance" (pg. 188). Because conflict
and discipline have a cause and effect relationship, the applicable
knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAís) need to be identified in order to
handle both issues. These skills are provided as a resource to the team in
the form of an educated facilitator or manager. Team members have the
option of consulting with this person for advice in handling unique
conflict situations and as a result, learning the correct management skills
for future use (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994).
Rayeski and Bryantís (1994) procedure includes three steps for addressing
an escalating conflict:
* The first step is collaboration. Initially, as conflict arises, it
should be handled informally between the two team members in a private
setting. It is useful for each person to address as many facts as
possible regarding the disagreement in an open and honest manner. This
method of collaboration provides the opportunity for self-corrective
behavior by the individual, without the need for any formal
disciplinary action. Efforts are made to relate the problem to
customer and/or organizational needs. Each party is required to sign a
documented copy of the meetingís discussion.
* The second step is mediation. If the situation escalates, a mediator
is brought into the dispute to assist both sides in reaching an
agreement. This mediation step is needed when an issue between
individual members becomes disruptive to the team and collaboration
attempts are ineffective. Efforts are made to relate the problem to
customer and/or organizational needs. Each party is required to sign a
documented copy of the meetingís discussion. The success of this step
relies on the neutrality of the mediator and the degree to which the
team trusts this individual.
* The third step is team counseling. If efforts of collaboration and
mediation fail, this is the final step for resolving an escalating
team conflict situation. Team counseling is held at a team meeting,
with all members of the team present. The issue is presented along
with all the facts surrounding the disagreement. Efforts are made to
relate the problem to customer and/or organizational needs. Each
member is required to sign a documented copy of the meetingís
Team Conflict Resolution Skills
Some people have trouble being a member of a team, especially those people
accustomed to making decisions on their own. Once a person enters into a
team membership, he or she is entering into an interdependent relationship.
There is a sense that a person is giving up oneís individuality, yet the
contribution to the team produces an end result greater than that achieved
by individual effort. This interdependent relationship naturally leads to
episodes of conflict (Wisinski, 1995). Wisinski (1995) proposes the use of
six skills required for team membership to maintain strong team
relationships needed for addressing conflict:
* Participation indicates that a member is involved in the team in a
balanced manner; the member is neither too withdrawn, nor overbearing
or dominant. Each member is aware of this balance and helps others to
maintain their respective balance.
* There is a need for individual members to sell their ideas. For
example, when offering an alternative solution for a problem, the
member is prepared ahead of time and provides the necessary
perspective on what this means for the team as a whole. In addition,
the member is able to defend his or her view with logic rather than
* Relinquishing is the ability of a team member presenting his or her
personal opinion to withdraw it if it fails to gain the support of the
team. The member relinquishes the position in favor of a direction
agreed upon by the entire team.
* Evaluating is the responsibility of each member to offer feedback
stating any improvements or failures for the work of the team.
* Relationships are detrimental to the process of managing conflict
productively. Each member is responsible for maintaining supportive,
healthy relationships within the team. There is a strong need placed
on the individual to manage conflict between other team members.
* Task accomplishment is the responsibility of a team member to
understand what items and tasks they are responsible for in a
functioning team role. This includes knowing when tasks need to be
completed and the steps involved to complete each task.
If team members are not mutually respective of one another and fail to
harbor a willingness to disagree and resolve disputes, no method of team
resolution is effective (Weiss, 1997). Weiss (1997) indicates four skills
that team members are responsible for practicing in order to disagree on
issues without creating consequences damaging to the team:
The first skill is listening. For a person to listen effectively, he or she
must clear their mind of all distractions and concentrate on the peopleís
words, as well as nonverbal gestures, such as tone of voice, posture, and
hand movements. Ninety percent of what a person is saying is conveyed by
nonverbal gestures. Being a good listener, enables a person to understand
the content and feeling of a disagreement, thus increasing the likelihood
of reaching an agreement.
The second skill is acknowledging someone elseís position and feelings
within a dispute. An example of the difference between agreeing and
acknowledging is a statement of acknowledgment such as, "If I understand
you, you think we should...". A person may continue to disagree with
another, yet the other person realizes that they comprehend his or her
position. Acknowledgment assures each team member that they are not being
The third skill is responding. A person responding with constructive
feedback to another personís argument clarifies his or her points of
contention, while offering an alternative for that person to contemplate.
It is noted that efforts should be made to avoid defensive responses.
Defensiveness does not improve the situation.
The fourth skill is resolving remaining differences. First, the real
problem is defined by looking for the direct cause of the dispute. Next,
the problem is analyzed into segmented parts. At this point, alternative
solutions are suggested by each party. Finally, working together, both
parties select the most reasonable and accepted solution.
Conflict as a Measure of Team Development
The ability of a team to resolve conflict is a valid measure of team
development. Conflict and chaos are central elements to the development of
teams; therefore, conflict is an appropriate indicator of team growth. Many
teams function in unstable environments, plagued with unanticipated
problems. Therefore, there is a strong need for teams to progressively
confront conflict in order to extend team growth beyond the early
developmental phases (Drinka, 1994). Drinka (1994) identifies the following
commonly used styles of conflict resolution:
* Coercing is a process in which groups use confrontational tactics,
such as argument, use of authority, or threat, to achieve the goals of
each group regardless of the expense paid by the other.
* Withdrawal is the process by which both parties involved in a
disagreement postpone or ignore the issue causing the conflict.
* Negotiation is the process by which both groups selectively ignore
certain interests in order to reach an agreement, thus achieving
partial satisfaction for each side.
* Accommodation is the process by which one group neglects its own
interests by satisfying the needs of the other group involved.
* Collaboration is the process by which each party attempts to reach
mutual satisfaction by collectively confronting the conflict,
recognizing the concerns of each group, and problem-solving.
Intertwined with the use of these conflict resolution styles, Drinkaís
model of team development displays the dynamic changes of conflict through
the following developmental phases: forming, norming, confronting, and
performing. The forming phase consists of the superficial sharing of names
and background information among team members. In this stage, members are
unsure of team purposes and are guarded. Conflict is neither discussed, nor
addressed. Typically, this is a stage where accommodation is overused, as
members size one another up and hesitate to assume strong positioning in
the team (Drinka, 1994).
During the norming stage, members address initial conflicts that grow out
of a lack of understanding of team goals. Procedures and policies are made
in writing. Negotiation is used in the norming stage to help aid in
establishing the teamís written guidelines. Having a written set of rules
and policies keeps situations from erupting into disagreements. Team
members refer to these policies as a way of avoiding open conflict.
Frustration builds during the advanced stages of the norming phase. At this
point, members begin to coerce others in an attempt to retain their power
within the team. By contrast, some individuals revert to withdrawal tactics
as a way of holding onto their power (Drinka, 1994).
The confronting phase is the next developmental level. The main point of
conflict erupts during this phase as there is a struggle for leadership and
the continued retention of power. Members tend to act coercive toward one
another, or other members withdraw. In mid-phase, some members realize the
advantages of constructive confrontation as a tool for problem solving.
These members go on to become functional leaders. With this transition, the
balance of power is altered until the rest of the team members find their
potential for filling a functional team role. Once every member realizes
the contributive power within each functional role, they feel empowered to
use conflict for collaboration; thus, the team gains the capacity to
develop further. The last step of this phase is the teamís demonstrated
reliance on collaborative skills for problem solving and obtaining agreed
upon solutions. This phase of confrontation is critical to the continued
development of the team. A typical consequence of unmanaged conflict during
this stage is the regression of the team to earlier developmental stages.
Therefore, there is a strong emphasis for team members to recognize the
equal participation in decision making and leadership available in each
functional role of the team (Drinka, 1994).
The next level of development is the performing phase, in which members
assume advanced teaching roles in the team and protect the right to power
of other members. Conflict in this final stage is directed at the content
of task issues and less towards the individual members. The differences of
each team member are appreciated and members trust one another enough to
view conflicts as normal. By the time the team reaches the performing
stage, a comfortable environment is created in which each member is
accustomed to open disagreement. As a result of this open environment, the
team reestablishes itself with greater depth and understanding after
resolving each conflictual issue. The ability to promote disagreement in
the form of constructive confrontation comes with the achieved roles of
advanced team members. Having reached the performing stage, these members
are able to continuously manage conflict as it erupts. This is detrimental
to the success of the team as the innovativeness of the conflict solution
depends on the applicability of the style of management used to fit the
situation. Also, it is imperative that all team members learn to assume
leadership. The passing on of this learned, leadership knowledge to new
members of the team helps combat the regression pitfalls of turnover rates
in teams (Drinka, 1994).
Throughout development, Drinka points out the need for the focus of the
team to be directed toward conflict. In this manner, each member is
cognizant of the importance that conflict plays in the success of the team.
Cohesive work teams are those that recognize and address conflict at a high
functional level. A team working at this level increases the quality of the
decision-making process, appreciates the value of diversity, and more
important, is capable of handling change over time (Drinka, 1994).
Perspective Taking in Managing Team Conflict
Perspective taking is shown to be a useful tool in managing conflict in
teams, and it is an important communicative element of a conflict
situation. Team members need to be able understand the information and
perspectives being offered to them from other disagreeing members. Sessa
(1996) defines perspective taking as, "the cognitive process of
understanding how another person thinks and feels about the situation and
why they are behaving as they are" (pg. 105). Team members with high
functioning perspective taking abilities are capable of accurately
comprehending another memberís argument, and are therefore more likely to
consider alternative views when discussing the problem at hand (Sessa,
Perspective taking is successful in managing conflict, because conflict and
negative affect are not always dependent upon one another. Sessa defines
affect as, "the shared emotion exhibited by team members" (pg. 104). Thus,
the emotions of each team member involved in a disagreement influence each
other and the shared situation. Conflict is seen as arising as a result of
preexisting conditions, such as each member of the team having different
cognitions, and is considered to be either task-oriented or
people-oriented. Task-oriented conflict is directed toward the ideas and
procedures of a task on which the team is working and is not associated
with the affective tone of a team. People-oriented conflict is directed
towards other members of the team and is found to be negatively associated
to the affective tone of the team. Examples of people-oriented conflicts
are personality differences, struggles over leadership, and the questioning
of other membersí competencies. When a situation results in team memberís
interpreting the source of conflict due to another member, the result is an
average negative emotional tone for the entire team. The type of conflict
surrounding a dispute becomes the deciding factor of whether or not the
disagreement creates a negative affect in the team. Therefore, the teamís
collective interpretation of the type of conflict is very important (Sessa,
Sessaís (1996) findings indicate that a team with a high average in
perspective functioning is more likely to interpret a conflict situation as
task-oriented, as opposed to people-oriented. These high functioning teams
were recipients of a three hour training session in which perspective
taking is explained, as well as the importance of its use within the team.
Included in the training are role playing activities that allow team
members to practice and understand the cognitive role that perspective
taking plays in the team decision-making process. A wrap-up segment is
conducted at the end of the training session to discuss things learned and
the application of the training in team interaction. Sessa proposes that
future work in this area needs to be focused toward the most effective
means of providing perspective taking training for teams (Sessa, 1996).
Managing Conflict in Project Teams
In regard to conflict and the use of project work teams, Kezsbom (1992)
states, "diversity does not breed conflict, it also encourages innovation"
(pg. 58). Cross-functional teams are used more and more to complete
projects that require input from multiple team members originating from
various disciplines. These elements collectively contribute to
discrepancies of project team work, ranging from communication problems, to
personality conflicts. If handled properly, conflict is beneficial to both
the project and the project team by indicating the areas deserving special
attention, appropriate strategies, and more effective procedures (Kezsbom,
Kezsbomís (1992) research indicates a change from the classic literature
(Thamhain & Wilemon, 1975) involving project teams and conflict. The
previous research occurred at a time when the technology, organizational
structure, and markets differed dramatically from the projects of the
nineties. For example, Kezsbomís findings show that goals and priority
definition are the highest ranking conflict category, contrary to previous
studies representing scheduling to be the highest cause of conflict.
Kezsbom explains the difference in results due to the increased modern day
usage of multi-project teams and cross-functional membership, requiring
members to report to several project managers, in addition to functional
managers. The result is team confusion regarding the intended goal of the
project and the priority of the projectís tasks. The importance of
scheduling has been recognized by todayís organization as a necessary tool
for survival when dealing with project work. Therefore, there has been a
shift of emphasis in conflict categories and the degree to which each
affects project team processes (Kezsbom, 1992).
The third ranking conflict category in Kezsbomís (1992) work points to
problems in communication and information flow. The consequences of each
are poor levels of communication and confusion surrounding project goals
and priorities. As goals and priorities often change throughout a project,
the project teams become frustrated, unmotivated, and levels of team
productivity decrease (Kezsbom, 1992).
Compared to previous findings, there has been a rise in personality
differences disrupting project teamwork. Current research shows personality
and interpersonal conflict to be the second highest overall source of
project conflict. The increase is thought to be due to the prevalence of
cross-functional teams; thus, people of various disciplines must deal with
multiple personality types for accomplishing their own objectives (Kezsbom,
There are several precautionary measures to take when managing conflict in
project teams. First, more effective communication from management, down
through each individual project team provides a more timely decision-making
process. To facilitate this procedure, management must determine their
organizational priorities and make a firm commitment in directing the focus
of project teams toward the intended project goals. Also, by holding
frequent meetings and review sessions, each teamís perspective of goal
attainment remains aligned throughout the project. Secondly, with regard to
minimizing personality conflict, Kezsbom recommends increasing human
relations training and implementing team building activities. Every avenue
of support needs to be pursued, so the members of cross-functional teams
understand the unique nature of the teamwork process, as well as the
realization that member differences are of value to the team as a whole.
Thirdly, conflict should be addressed in initial project planning sessions
in order to target open item issues, team concerns, and high risk areas.
The foundation for potential project setbacks are established during the
early project phases if conflict is avoided. Increasingly, the use of a
participative team approach to project planning, scheduling, and
controlling is resulting in a team understanding that each member is
responsible for the project outcome (Kezsbom, 1992).
The research of Barker, Tjosvold, and Andrews (1988) validates effective
conflict approaches for a project team manager. Project team managers are
an integral part of the work process. For a project manager to prepare for
team conflict, selective attention is needed to monitor potential areas of
eruption. The position requires the management of diverse resources, and
this complexity requires the skill of using the appropriate approaches to
deal with the resulting conflicts (Barker et al., 1988); Thamhain &
Wilemon, 1975). Barker et al. (1988) studied the use of the following four
approaches to managing conflict:
1. The co-operative approach places an emphasis on mutual goals, joint
benefit, and incorporation of several views for a team solution.
2. Confirming conveys that the other person is accepted as effective and
avoids blaming or trading insults.
3. The competitive approach assumes that conflict is a win-lose struggle.
There is a use of force and coercion to make team members conform to
4. Avoiding tries to maintain team harmony and smooth over any
differences between members. This method avoids frustration and
Project team managers who use a co-operative approach, naturally use a
confirming approach, as well. This combined method leads to high measures
of conflict constructiveness and management effectiveness. Confirmation
strengthens co-operative elements in a relationship while a lack of
confirmation, exacerbates competitive elements. For example, a team
memberís competency, confirmed by a project manager, leads to an increase
in confidence for taking risks that co-operative encouragement favors
(Barker et al., 1988).
Project managers opting to use methods of competition and avoiding, do so
by alternating between each style. This combined method leads to
undesirable outcomes. For example, team members are less likely to
interpret the resolution to be constructive or the result of effective
management. Typically, a project manager relies on competitive methods when
it is favorable that he or she is winning the disagreement; yet, the same
manager often converts to avoidance tactics if the outcome of the
disagreement is uncertain. These findings clarify the responsibility of
project team managers to rely on a balanced approach to conflict, applying
both co-operative and confirmational resolution methods (Barker et al.,
The role of conflict in work teams is determined by the manner in which it
is managed. Conflict pervades the core of team processes, and, if
unaddressed, conflict serves to stunt the development of a team. However,
teams educated in the dynamic nature of conflict are capable of harnessing
the energy created by its elements, resulting in productive outcomes. With
growing emphasis, the advantages of the constructive management of team
conflict are becoming more evident in todayís business world (McDaniel et
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