Resolving Team Conflict

The saying, “Can’t work with ’em and can’t work without ’em,” can ring true for many working in teams. Today’s workplace teams must manage conflict before and as it arises. If they can work together collaboratively and constructively, they tend to perform well and create an enjoyable working atmosphere for members. If not, performance and morale suffers.

In a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers Kristin Behfar at the University of California, Randall Peterson at the London Business School and Elizabeth Mannix and William Trochim at Cornell University found that high-performing teams tend to deal with conflict in a particularly effective manner. They identified three types of conflict that typically arise in teams:

Task conflict: This refers to occasions when teams disagree on ideas, viewpoints, philosophies and opinions regarding a task. For example, a team may argue over how to achieve aggressive revenue targets. Some may advocate adding staff while others dislike adding costs. They want to do more with less. This fundamental disagreement can stymie a team and reduce performance.

Relationship Conflict: This arises when there are personality clashes that lead to feelings of tension, irritation and anger within the team. Differences in personal style or ways of approaching others can cause team conflict. For example, a team member who often dominates or interrupts may aggravate a team. Other conflict revolves around stealing ideas, treating colleagues rudely or condescendingly in front of other team members or not taking members seriously.

Process Conflict: This shows up in arguments over how work is divided, delegated or accomplished. For example, some team members may feel short-changed if they are given the lion’s share of the work while others may feel they are being given less important tasks.

Teams must manage these types of conflict well to be successful. If these kinds of conflict are not managed well, teams are likely to suffer a decline in both performance and productivity. There tends to be higher turnover in teams where conflict goes unresolved and morale, commitment and motivation all suffer. It becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate the team to meet deadlines and accomplish tasks.

All teams have to meet performance expectations, satisfy the individual needs of the group members and engage in processes that ensure the ability to work together in the future. This includes managing conflict effectively. The researchers noted that teams that are effective and teams that languish have distinctive ways of managing conflict. researchers found the following conflict-management strategies within high-functioning teams:

1. Focus on Equity: The team finds the appropriate way for members to contribute based on the individual’s expertise. Members aren’t afraid to identify strengths and capitalize on them while compensating for weaknesses by removing a task for which the individual lacks ability.

2. Focus on Fact: When dealing with conflict around differing opinions, high-performing teams engage in non-emotional and evidence or fact-oriented debates. Differing views are explored and consensus is reached based on evidence.

3. Focus on Content: When these teams deal with relationship conflict, they tend to focus on the content of a team member’s contribution and ignore personality differences. For example, when a group member used condescending and insulting non-verbal behaviours during a discussion, the team elected to ignore the behaviours and focus on the content of the team member’s contribution.

4. Focus on Prevention: To deal with process conflict, or the dividing and delegating of tasks, high-performing teams look ahead at the constraints of individuals based on their schedules. Conflicts in the schedules with team meetings and proposed deadlines are discussed and adjustments are made to accommodate everyone. In this way, the team helps members arrange their time to complete tasks before scheduling conflicts become a problem. It’s important to discussing the quality of the work early on and talking about concerns that arise due to a lack of quality. Work is assigned according to expertise and everyone understands who is responsible for what. Making expectations clear is vital to team success.

5. Focus on Explicit Compromise: Team members make compromises in scheduling work and meetings and in the assignment of work to maintain high quality. High-performing teams are equally concerned with completing tasks and meeting individual needs. Everyone understands the trade-offs others are making to accommodate each other and finish the job.

Engaging in effective conflict management requires forethought, compromise and clarity. Anything less will detract from a team’s performance. High-performing teams are willing to have difficult conversations early, which is key to resolving conflict and ensuring future team effectiveness. It is tempting to slide concerns under the carpet in the early phases of working together. But dealing up front with issues of expertise, work quality and who does what can prevent and relieve many headaches down the road. Less productive teams engage different conflict management strategies that tend to detract from their performance and team member satisfaction. There are three types of underperforming teams: rules-based teams, equality-based teams and ad-hoc teams. We will feature these teams in our next column.

Dr. Newman and Dr. Grigg’s column will return in September

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

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