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9.3: Constructive Team Conflict

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    Learning Objectives

    • Explain how conflict can be used as a strategy for improving team performance
    • Differentiate between conflict resolution and conflict management

    Teams can use conflict as a strategy for enhancing performance.

    Teams may use conflict as a strategy for continuous improvement and learning. Recognizing the benefits of conflict and using them as part of the team’s process can enhance team performance. Conflict can uncover barriers to collaboration that changes in behavior can remove. It can also foster better decisions because it makes team members consider the perspectives of others and even helps them see things in new and innovative ways.

    Addressing conflict can increase team cohesion by engaging members in discussions about important issues. Team members may feel more valued when they know they are contributing to something vital to the team’s success. Conflict can reveal assumptions that may not apply in the current situation and thus allow the team to agree on a new course. It can also draw attention to norms that have developed without the explicit agreement of team members and create the opportunity to endorse or discard them.

    Generating Constructive Conflict

    Team members and others can follow a few guidelines for encouraging constructive conflict. First, they can start by explicitly calling for it as something that will help improve the team’s performance. This helps people view conflict as acceptable and can thus free them to speak up.

    Teams can lower the emotional intensity of any conflict be establishing clear guidelines for how to express disagreements and challenge colleagues. One helpful norm is to focus on the task-related element of a conflict rather than criticizing the traits of particular individuals. Another is to emphasize common goals and shared commitments, which can keep conflict in perspective and prevent it from overwhelming the team’s efforts.

    Team Conflict Resolution and Management

    Some ways of dealing with conflict seek resolution; others aim to minimize negative effects on the team. ​​​​​​​

    The way a team deals with conflicts that arise among members can influence whether and how those conflicts are resolved and, as a result, the team’s subsequent performance. There are several ways to approach managing and resolving team conflict—some leave the team and its members better able to continue their work, while others can undermine its effectiveness as a performing unit.

    Conflict Resolution

    Teams use one of three primary approaches to conflict resolution: integrative, distributive, and mediating.

    1. Integrative approaches focus on the issue to be solved and aim to find a resolution that meets everyone’s needs. Success with this tactic requires the exchange of information, openness to alternatives, and a willingness to consider what is best for the group as a whole rather than for any particular individual.
    2. Distributive approaches find ways to divide a fixed number of positive outcomes or resources in which one side comes out ahead of the other. Since team members have repeated interactions with each other and are committed to shared goals, the expectation of reciprocity can make this solution acceptable since those who don’t get their way today may end up “winning” tomorrow.
    3. Mediating approaches bring in a third party to facilitate a non-confrontational, non-adversarial discussion with the goal of helping the team reach a consensus about how to resolve the conflict. A mediator from outside the team brings no emotional ties or preconceived ideas to the conflict and therefore can help the team identify a broader set of solutions that would be satisfactory to all.

    Although these three approaches all bring overt conflict to an end, team cohesion can suffer if members perceive the process itself as unfair, disrespectful, or overly contentious. The result can be resentment that festers and leads to subsequent additional conflict that a more conciliatory process might have avoided.

    Conflict Management

    The primary aim of conflict management is to promote the positive effects and reduce the negative effects that disputes can have on team performance without necessarily fully resolving the conflict itself. Teams use one of three main tactics to manage conflict: smoothing, yielding, and avoiding.

    1. The smoothing approach attempts to minimize the differences among the people who are in conflict with each other. This strategy often focuses on reducing the emotional charge and intensity of how the people speak to each other by emphasizing their shared goals and commitments.
    2. The yielding approach describes the choice some team members make to simply give in when others disagree with them rather than engage in conflict. This is more common when the stakes are perceived to be small or when the team member’s emotional ties to the issue at hand are not particularly strong.
    3. In the avoiding approach, teams members may choose to simply ignore all but the most contentious disagreements. While this can have short-term benefits and may be the best option when the team is under time pressure, it is the approach least likely to produce a sense of harmony among the team.

    While conflict can increase the engagement of team members, it can also create distractions and draw attention away from important tasks. Because conflict management seeks to contain such disruptions and threats to team performance, conflicts do not disappear so much as exist alongside the teamwork.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Points

    • Team performance can benefit by using conflict to foster learning and process improvement.
    • Team members can establish guidelines and norms that encourage constructive conflict.
    • Conflict resolution aims to eliminate disagreements and disputes among team members; in contrast, conflict management seeks to minimize the negative effects of conflict on team performance.
    • There are three main approaches to conflict resolution: integrative, distributive, and mediating.
    • There are three main conflict-management tactics: smoothing, yielding, and avoiding.

    Key Terms

    • innovation: A change in customs; something new and contrary to established patterns, manners, or rites.
    • conflict: A clash or disagreement between two opposing groups or individuals.
    • dispute: An argument or disagreement.
    • resolution: The moment in which a conflict ends and the outcome is clear.
    • adversarial: Characteristic of an opponent; combative, hostile.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 9.3: Constructive Team Conflict is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kerry Osborne.

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