Conflict Resolution Strategies
Conflict may be seen as a natural part of life, a harmful situation to be avoided or a positive force, however, in whatever view it must reach resolution. What are the accepted views of conflict? What are the types of conflict? What are the stages of conflict? What are the strategies to resolve conflict? This research paper will answer these four questions in consecutive order followed by a brief explanation of methods to enhance team performance.
The Accepted Views of Conflict
The Traditional View
According to Stephen P. Robbins (2005), “The early approach to conflict assumed that all conflict was bad.” (p. 423). This view was simple and to the point. Avoid conflict because it always has a bad effect. This simple view of conflict being all bad leads us to believe that all we need to do is find what is causing the conflict, change it, and the group or team will begin to perform well. Even though studies are indicating this may not be true many people hold to this idea that all conflict is simply bad. (Robbins 2005)
The Human Relations View
The human relations view proposed that conflict was natural in kinds of groups. This view explained that since conflict was a natural part of life it should be accepted as such. In this approach conflict was also seen as a possible source to improve performance in groups. This was the most accepted view in conflict theory from the end of the 1940s to the middle of the 1970s.
The Interactionist View
If everything is smooth in a group with perfect harmony will the group be creative? According to the Interactionist view this is not true. In fact the Interactionist view states exactly the opposite. Stephan P. Robbins (2005) wrote, “a harmonious, peaceful,
tranquil, and cooperative group is prone to becoming static, apathetic, and nonresponsive to needs for change and innovation.” (p.423)
The Interactionist view then proposed that leaders or managers of groups should actually use methods to ensure there was a certain level of conflict within a team or group.
Accepting the Interactionist View we can say that not all conflict is bad. This brings up the question as to what conflict is good and what conflict is bad. According to Robbins (2005) this is defined in the type of conflict. (p. 424)
The Types of Conflict
What is good conflict? What is bad conflict?
Obviously, the answer to the two above questions are good conflict improves the groups ability and bad conflict hinders or is destructive to the performance of the group.
To determine which conflict is bad and which is good it becomes necessary to first quality the types of conflict.
According to Robbins (2005) and other experts there are three types of conflicts: (p.424)
Task- what the work is about (content) (Robbins 2005) Relationship- the relationships between members (Robbins 2005) Process- the methods of doing the work (Robbins 2005)
Taking them in order, task conflict if not too extreme is a functional kind of conflict in that it promotes discussion of ways to accomplish the tasks. Relationship conflicts on the other hand usually cause trouble by causing more misunderstanding than understanding of each other and slows completion of tasks. Process conflicts can be beneficial if at a low level. The process or how something is to be done often needs to be argued a bit to determine the best path. (Robbins 2005) “My way or the highway” may work in the military but rarely works in teams of peers.
The Five Stages of Conflict
Incompatibility (Robbins 2005) Perception of Conflict (Robbins 2005) Intentions (Robbins 2005) Behavior (Robbins 2005) The Outcome (Robbins 2005)
When team members do not gel it usually is caused by three factors. The first is poor communication skills. The way in which communication is worded is important for smooth exchange of information. In addition, research shows that the amount of communication is very important. Too much communication opens the door for conflict by confusing the issue. Too little communication leads to assumptions of meaning and poor understanding and leads to conflict. Second, the structure of roles of the team members is a source of conflict. For example, one members tasks can directly affect the ability of another member completing their task. Third, the personality differences between members can cause conflict. Not liking another team member and being irritated at what they say is not exactly conducive to good teamwork. (Robbins 2005)
Perception of Conflict
How team members understand and if they understand conflict are factors which may contribute to conflict. Lack of clear understanding of the issue leads to spiraling off on emotional tangents that become difficult to recover from. (Robbins 2005)
As the popular Christian saying goes, “the road to heaven is paved with good intentions”. This is also true in teams. There may be a significant gap between what a member intends to do and the actual action taken. In addition, assuming another’s intentions can lead to wrong action and lead to conflict. (Robbins 2005)
Behavior is the stage we all understand the best since it is clearly seen. In this stage action surfaces in the form of verbal causes resulting in reaction exchange. (Robbins 2005) Poor behavior leads to conflict through negative spirals of accusations and rebuttals which may lead to serious conflict. (Robbins 2005)
In this final stage the result of the conflict shows. Whether the conflict has been beneficial for the team clearly is exhibited at this point. If the outcome increases the effectiveness of a team it is usually because the conflict was task or process generated.
Strategies for Resolving Conflict
“Prevention is the best cure” (Firstline 2007)
According to Firstline (2007) the first strategy for dealing with conflict is to prevent it from happening. The environment in which teams work has a great deal to do with how team members interact with each other. A friendly environment is essential so that members feel relaxed with each other. Promoting a friendly environment means supporting the team members by giving training for the duties to be performed, as well as training in how to work within the team situation and deal with conflict in the proper way. (Firstline 2007)
The Right Strategy for the Right Conflict
Early in this paper it stated that some conflict is good and some bad. In order to apply the proper technique to resolve the difference the first step is to identify whether the conflict is actually bad as in the case of personal conflict or whether it is just part of the process. Elizabeth J. Pyatt (2007) takes this identification to another step stating that is important to also determine who is involved in the conflict. Is the conflict internal or external. For example some conflicts arise from outside the team from other teams or management. (Pyatt 2007)
If the conflict is internal it is important that all sides receive encouragement to explain their views. At this time it is also important to remind the team of the ground rules which may include a point such as listening carefully to each other. Next as the views come out it is important to encouragement the areas that are agreed upon. In like manner it is important to de-emphasize points of disagreement. (Pyatt 2007)
Reducing Representational Gaps
As mentioned previously conflict often arises that is process and task orientated and that one member’s task may influence the work or outcome of another task (Robbins 2005). Cronin M.A. and Weingart L.R. (2007) define the main cause of this conflict and term it “Representational Gaps” (p.761). This term means the members have different understanding of the common group goal through the interpretation of their own tasks. The example Cronin and Weingart used was a truck design team given the job of designing a “tough” truck. The designer understood this to mean massive and imposing. The engineer took this to mean powerful in ability. The designer’s drawing seriously conflicted with the engineers design of size in relation to engine power. This impasse requires increased understanding of the two team members through input from management and sales as to the true goal. Then as both members change their idea of what the job entails the gap narrows allowing for compromise.
(Cronin & Weingart 2007)
Turning a diverse group of five, seven, or more people with varied backgrounds, experience, expertise, and affiliations into a cohesive governing team can be a daunting task. (Eadie 2007)
The personalities, cultures, backgrounds, education and experience of team members is a major cause of conflict. A popular means of dealing with this problem is trust and teamwork building retreats which employ methods like catching someone in your arms who falls backward and other techniques. These methods work according to Doug Eadie who is in charge of building governing teams. However, Eadie (2007) explains that in order for that kind of activity to work three things are essential. First, the team must be fully aware of and focused on the teams goals. Second, the process and structure must be well-designed, Third, there must be good team guidelines that are followed. (Eadie 2007)
Self-Managed Teams- When Management Must Step-In
Claus W. Langfred of George Mason University (2007) did an exhaustive study on self managed teams showing that self-managed teams tend to restructure themselves which often leads to reduced ability and not to improvement. Langfred (2007) showed through his study that trust was reduced in the restructuring process. In addition, individual freedom to accomplish tasks was reduced as well as dependence on each other to accomplish tasks. This suggests that a strategy to reduce conflict and increase performance in self-managed teams requires management to step into the restructuring process at the crucial point before conflict leads to dysfunctional change. Langfred (2007)
Summary of the Techniques to Handle Conflict (Robbins 2005)
The following is a summary of some techniques to handle conflict followed by a brief explanation of each.
Dialogue and Discussion (Robbins 2005) Create Goals of Cooperation (Robbins 2005) Increase Resources (Robbins 2005) Suppress the conflict (Robbins 2005) Play on common interests (Robbins 2005) Compromise- find middle ground (Robbins 2005) Management Settlement (Robbins 2005) Training (Robbins 2005) Restructure (Robbins 2005)
Communication is usually the first step in conflict resolution and is best done face to face if possible. Often conflict can be resolved through simply letting the members talk it out expressing their own views. Goals can be created that require the conflicting members to work together. If the conflict resolves around things like promotions or bonuses of some kind it may be possible to increase those resources and resolve the issue. Avoiding the issue may be the simplest solution or suppressing it. There may be differences but there will also be common interests…putting emphasis on the common interests while de-emphasizing the differences is one technique. Compromise is an option but requires both parties to give up something. Management may have to step in and use its authority to settle the issue. Training in social awareness, teamwork and conflict resolution is another method. Finally, restructuring through transfer or job tasks is an option. (Robbins 2005)
The traditional view and human relation view of conflict have given way to the Interactionist view in the present. This view holds that certain kinds of conflict can be good to stimulate growth in teams. Even with this knowledge our tendency is viewing conflict as harmful. In light of that, it is clear that studying the types of conflict, knowing the five stages it goes through and being well aware of the strategies and techniques to deal with conflict are very important. The diversity of personalities, backgrounds, and cultures are a formidable block to cooperation in teams as are other causes of conflict such as the representation gap. However, each type of conflict has ways of resolution and certainly preventing conflict from happening through proper structure and training is the best solution. We may not all like teams, but teams are here to stay. Our challenge is educating ourselves to make them work.
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