When managers speak of teamwork, they usually have a vague mental picture of individuals in polite discussion. They may envision people willingly assisting others from a different part of the organization. Such groups or behaviors may or may not constitute teamwork. True teams exhibit a high level of social structure. Their members have specific behaviors that move the group towards specific goals.
We often mistake an absence of overt conflict for effective teamwork. But conflict is natural, even desirable. If conflict is not visible, either people are thinking alike or they have suppressed conflict. Neither situation is helpful. Effective teams gain much of their power from their divergent thinking, attitudes and experience. Without this variety, conflict is lessened but the resulting decisions and actions are less effective. Teams with diversity of thinking but suppression of the resulting conflict also lose effectiveness and the conflict eventually erupts in destructive ways.
The following are important assumptions about conflict:
Conflict is natural
It highlights differences between people
At low levels it is beneficial
Teams should develop healthy ways of viewing and using conflict
People have different styles of coping with conflict
Teams should preview and think how they want to manage conflict before it occurs.
Conflict is a "state of disharmony brought about by differences of impulses, desires, or tendencies" (Rayeski & Bryant, 1994, p. 217). According to Capozzoli (1995), conflict can be constructive if it changes and allows personality growth, results in solving the problem, increases the investment and involvement of the team members, and creates team cohesiveness
Conflict naturally emerges in nearly all groups. Sometimes this occurs during the jostling for position and influence during the "storming" stage of development, but can occur at any stage, such as when there are disagreements over goal definitions. Conflict grows out of differences over valued beliefs, and it can be mild, moderate or severe.
Mild to moderate conflict can have a beneficial catalyzing effect on a team by bringing out issues that require discussion, acknowledging real differences, and preventing hidden agendas and sub-grouping. Severe conflict can handicap a team, preoccupy group functioning, damage relationships, and seriously impair an organization.
Resolving conflict constructively is the most critical of team skills. Without this ability, the team cannot develop the trust and bonding that allows moving from the Storming stage into peak performance. Conflict resolution is not a stand-alone skill. There are specific techniques and attitudes that are helpful, but conflict resolution interrelates with other skills.
The "Storming" stage of group and teamwork is often considered a stage of conflict and even fighting, when it is really a stage of development where people become more aware of their differences and attempt to use their influence to persuade each other. Conflict only occurs when such influence does not work, and influence behavior escalates
If the conflict is not managed properly, it can lead to dysfunction and disaster (Amason et al., 1996; Bens, 1997). Conflict results in disaster because people lack the skills to deal effectively with it (Townsley, 1997). In addition, many teams and team facilitators do not plan adequately for dealing with conflict (Bens, 1999; Townsley).
Fisher et al. (1995) recommend five steps to resolve conflict that includes:
Recognizing that the conflict exists
Finding common ground by putting the conflict in the context of the larger goal of the team and the organization
Understanding all the perspectives of the issue, which means that everyone is not required to agree with the opposing views (see also Capozzoli, 1995)
Attacking the issue and not the members of the team (see also Capozzoli, 1995)
Developing an action plan that describes how each member of the team will solve the problem or issue (see also Capozzoli, 1995).
Fisher and his colleagues also recommend avoiding certain traps that worsen conflict:
Avoid forcing team members to choose among given options or limiting the alternatives
Avoid becoming too dependent on management to resolve issues/problems simply because dealing with conflict is painful
Avoid the temptation to ignore conflicts altogether
Prevent individual team members from giving into the group, who later act as though they are victims of group pressure (see also Bens, 1997)
Prevent team members from talking about team issues outside of the team setting because such issues should have been discussed within the team meeting/settings.
Thus, these methods of managing conflict direct the conflict to be constructive and beneficial by focusing on the task types of conflict while minimizing affect types conflict
Strategies that enhance task-related conflict and reduce affect-related conflict are the best ways to increase the potential benefits instead of increasing the negative consequences from avoiding conflict altogether. Planning also prevents conflict from becoming unmanageable. Furthermore, TACC or some other conflict checklist should be used early and often during the team's development to identify the type of conflict so that it can be managed appropriately. Although conflict is an inevitable aspect of team development, it can provide the basis for constructive and beneficial outcomes by identifying and managing conflict effectively.
Team reaches decisions
Disagreement is a common problem
Commitment to team goals
High esprit de corps
Disagreement on issues only Unproductive
Team is deadlocked
Disagreement is win-lose
Commitment to individual goals
No esprit de corps
Members see own views
Positive Outcomes of Conflict
Increases energy and creativity
If we can recognize and handle it well, team conflict can produce some very positive results. If you think about it, conflict is actually a form of energy. Expressed in a way that isn't harmful to members' self-esteem or interpersonal relationships, this energy can generate some real creative thinking. As teams work out the conflict and examine opposing ideas, they may be more willing to shift paradigms and consider alternative ideas for process improvement.
Misunderstandings often happen because of the language people use (or misuse). The conflict you get from these misunderstandings requires team members to discuss in more detail what they mean by a particular word or phrase. They develop operational definitions, as we talked about in data collection. They also start to practice more effective communication skills, and learn ways to clarify ideas more effectively.
Too often team members in conflict will try to avoid the issues that cause stress. But conflict that is managed allows them to express their differences, and they develop a better understanding of the issues and of each other.
Improves ground rules
Finally, since a team usually establishes its ground rules at one of the first meetings, the rules don't always address all of their needs. As they begin to "storm," they recognize more or different rules or norms, which will really help them, work together effectively. The conflict that causes them to reevaluate how they will operate gives them an opportunity to improve their ground rules.
As we all know, conflict can also have some negative outcomes. Let's look at those.
Negative Outcomes of Conflict
When conflict is not addressed, it tends to fester. Team members start to focus on the arguments, positions, or emotions and forget about the task. Meetings drag on and on without any real progress because the team is too busy disagreeing to get anything done. They can't make a decision or reach consensus on anything. Some members may even become so disenchanted that they fail to carry out assignments between meetings.
Lack of communication
Some people will want to avoid getting involved in the argument. They prefer to stay on the sidelines where it's safe, so they just stop talking. Others may believe that knowledge is power, so they withhold information in order to gain the upper hand. Some people may even give out wrong information in order to make someone else look bad. If communication breaks down, the whole team loses.
Negative emotions about teamwork
Unresolved or unmanaged conflict can be very emotionally stressful for team members or even people working around them. It can be such a bad experience that people start to associate team efforts with a negative emotional state. Soon no one wants to be on any team.
Sometimes members will withdraw, or just go along with the majority in order to reduce or avoid conflict. When they do, the team isn't getting the wide variety of viewpoints it needs to make the best decisions. Consensus is easy if no one disagrees, but it usually means the team hasn't considered all or even most of the alternatives. The quality of the team's decisions is almost certainly going to be lower.
Dysfunctional working relationships
If team conflict isn't dealt with constructively, it often creeps into the rest of the working environment and causes dysfunctional working relationships. Members may begin to avoid one another in the work place or "one-up" each other in a way that sub-optimizes their department or the command as a whole.
The notion that conflict should be avoided is one of the major contributors to the growth of destructive conflict in…