Unresolved Conflict Harms Team Productivity and Morale

In the workplace, teams will inevitably face conflict at some point. How they confront it affect productivity and their own satisfaction. In our last column, we discussed how high-performing teams handle conflicts. This column examines what happens when teams run into trouble when they try to manage conflict.

Researchers Kristen Behfar at the University of California, Randall Peterson at the London Business School, Elizabeth Mannix and William Trochim at Cornell University, say there are three types of teams that get bogged down in conflict and suffer as a result.

In their recent study in The Journal of Applied Psychology, they observed that rule-bound teams, equality-focused teams and unresolved teams paid dearly when conflict was not handled well. They noted that productivity declined as did team morale.

Rule-Bound Teams

Teams that do not handle conflict well but remain high performing in the short term do so at the cost of team morale and member satisfaction. Short-term performance gains are made but are unsustainable in the long run because members eventually quit or disengage from the team. The way these teams achieve productivity is by creating rules to govern team-member behaviour. They react to conflict instead of planning for areas where tension may arise. For example, instead of discussing potential scheduling conflicts in advance, the team deals with missed meetings or tardiness after the fact. Rules are made to react to issues that arise in order to avoid disruptions. And issues are resolved through voting—majority rules on these teams. Thus, individual needs are not integrated into the team’s approach to dealing with conflict. When this occurs, performance standards are maintained but members’ needs are not met. The result is unacknowledged tension among members.

In these teams, it is common to find members competing for control. This dynamic is unaddressed by the group. Difficulty dealing with dominant personalities can lead teams to become rule bound to avoid escalating clashes. They can resort to punishment, fines and humiliation to keep people in line. It is common to forfeit one’s opinion to get the job done but a personal cost comes with that.

Equality Focused Teams
While rule-bound teams focus on tasks above all, equality focused teams focus on maintaining relationships over task completion. Difficult conversations amongst team members are avoided on these teams to preserve relationships. The team never really tries to integrate different member perspectives and interests to produce a better outcome. As a result, productivity and performance declines although relationships remain strong. Rather than debate issues that affect work quality, these teams prefer to reach a consensus quickly or include everyone’s idea rather than analyse. A more careful analysis of the contributions of each member may elicit conflict, which these teams avoid at all costs.

When clashes do arise, these teams quickly create ways for the arguing members to avoid one another. The team member’s opinions are not debated and their possible contributions to a better overall product are lost. Decreasing performance is due to a lack of debate and a failure to utilize all members’ expertise as a result.

Unresolved Teams
Teams where conflict remains unresolved engage in debate and often heated ones yet do not seem to make progress. Member roles are unclear and the root causes of problems are never identified. The result: issues are never corrected. There is no agreed upon conflict management strategy and when team members discuss difficult issues, members experience a great deal of tension, frustration and endless conversations about the topic – with no resolution in sight. When tensions mount, people acquiesce to move past them. In this way, talking about the conflict becomes an obstacle to team success. There’s no real resolution to the conflict. Even when agreements on how to proceed appear to be made, lack of follow-through stymies the process. These teams often try techniques like brainstorming, playing devil’s advocate, convincing members of the merits of a solution, rotating responsibilities but they do not work. The conflict remains unresolved. Often a dominant or aggressive team member prevails and the team accommodates him or her to get on with the job. As a result, performance and morale both suffer, making the team ineffectual in the end.

Identifying the root cause of the conflict can help these teams generate a solution to the issues. At the times it may be necessary to bring in a third party to discuss the issues or dissolve the team. Not all teams can work together effectively and understanding this and reconfiguring the team may be in order if all else fails.

Teams that do not handle conflict well risk alienated members, lowering productivity and squandering talent.

Handling conflict effectively can be the difference between a high performing, satisfied and engaged staff group or a low functioning, tense and unhappy group of employees. Ensuring that conflict is resolved well is the key to enhanced productivity and high morale.

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 sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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