Conflict, by virtue of human nature, seems to be avoidable. And yet, so many teams try to avoid conflict at all costs. Conflict comes in many shapes and forms, and different types of conflict may be easily addressed than others. However, many forms of conflict are actually beneficial to the cohesion of a working team. In order to better understand the nature of conflict, let’s dive into some academic research on the subject to determine which conflict is beneficial for teams and which conflict requires is harmful.
Is Conflict Bad? Well, it depends…
Conflicts, or differences between members, can emerge from any number of sources. Donelson Forsyth, a professor at University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies, has identified four specific areas from which conflict can emerge. Naturally, the easiest conflicts to resolve are those involving a dispute over facts or data, because in all likelihood, there is empirical evidence that can be examined in order to help resolve the disagreement.
However, differences of opinion regarding how teams should accomplish their tasks or how they define the purpose of the group are a bit more difficult to resolve, and conflicts that involve differences in values or beliefs are the most difficult to resolve because people are less likely to compromise their core values. Forsyth describes these potential sources of conflict as levels of conflict, explained below.
Level I: Facts or Data
Level I conflict involves conflict about facts or data. For example, either the attendee was late or he wasn’t, either it’s raining outside or it’s sunny, either the experiment resulted in a statistically significant difference or it didn’t. Arguments can occur, though, when members don’t have all the data, or they interpret the data they do have in different ways. But at least members have a starting place with which to begin a conversation (i.e. the data), in order to attempt to reconcile their differences.
Level II: Processes or Methods
Level II conflict occurs when group members disagree about how something should be done. As groups work on various tasks, how they do it can become a source of tension. By defining ground rules, policies, and expectations, teams can deal with potential differences in a open and transparent way. This set of standard operating principles, along with a detailed project plan can minimize misunderstandings and establish mutual accountability. For example, teams can agree upon ground rules, such as the ones listed below, to guide their interaction and minimize unnecessary conflict.
Sample Ground Rules
- Be on time for meetings.
- Put cellphones and unneeded laptops away.
- Take risks by sharing true thoughts and innovative ideas.
- Participate freely and fully.
- Appreciate other points of view even if you disagree.
- Have fun.
Level III: Goals or Purpose
Moving from how to why becomes a bit more complicated. Why are we here? Why are we working on this? What is the ultimate objective of our coordinated effort? Without a unified vision, team members can begin pulling against each other, and power struggles can erupt. And when a team is working under tight deadlines, as most teams are, they cannot afford such inefficiencies. Because people tend to invest themselves in the team’s overall direction, they can hold on tightly to their opinions and argue less rationally than in Levels I or II. Problems can become drawn out, contentious, and thorny.
Level IV: Values or Beliefs
Level IV conflict is the most deeply-rooted and difficult to resolve because it is tied to who we are. The values of group members are inextricably linked to their identities so unless they are willing to admit that they might be wrong, the conflict is nearly permanent. As teams move from Level I through Level IV, the source of conflict becomes less tangible. They move from the concrete to the abstract and, thus, coming to an agreement more difficult. Resolving Level IV conflict depends upon both parties’ willingness to consider new perspectives, ask reflective questions, and depersonalize the exchange as much as possible.
When a team is in the midst of a conflict, it can be helpful to identify in which level the disagreement is rooted. Then members can be more aware of the source of tension in order to be more efficient in resolving it. And in some conflicts such as differences in goals or values, members might have to just agree to disagree and move on.
Task versus Relationship Conflict
Apart from these four levels of conflict, a more basic consideration on the health of workplace conflict is whether the conflict is rooted in tasks or relationships. When disagreements revolve around work tasks and do not become personal, conflict can stimulate information processing, increase cognitive flexibility and improve creative thinking. But conflict can also immobilize teams and distract members from their work. In order to distinguish between productive and unproductive conflict, team researchers categorize conflict as either task-based or relationship-based. In general, moderate levels of task conflict can improve team performance whereas relationship conflict almost always has a negative effect on outcomes. And both types of conflict have a negative effect on member satisfaction.
Task or substantive conflict includes disagreements about the team’s tasks and goals. In many cases, groups can use this type of conflict to increase creativity, make better plans, and solve complex problems more thoughtfully. Cross-functional teams or teams made up of members with different professional backgrounds bring divergent perspectives together to offer new perspectives and ways of thinking. These deliberate differences can be catalysts for innovation. In the case of the Survivor teams, choosing a place to camp is an important decision that requires deliberation and thoughtful consideration. Those discussions might get heated but they are still important to have. It is only when arguments get personal that they become problematic for the teams.
Relationship or affective conflict includes disagreements between two or more group members based upon differences in personal tastes or interpersonal style. It may come in the form of a rivalry, old grudges, perceived disrespect, or a situation in which two personalities just do not get along. In addition, relationship conflict tends to have a strong emotional or affective component. Group members who are experiencing this type of conflict tend to have strong negative feelings toward the person with whom they are in conflict. Unfortunately, this type of conflict is fairly common and rarely useful. According to Calvin Morrill, 40% of group conflict is rooted in conflict between individuals that is unrelated to group goals (Note: Morrill’s book, The Executive Way: Conflict Management in Corporations, is an excellent book for further reading on the subject covered in this post).
Though it may seem like a good solution, forced cooperation often aggravates relationship conflict. For example, in order to resolve racial conflict as portrayed in the movie Remember the Titans, the coach made his players room with their racial counterparts, the people with whom they had intense interpersonal conflict, in order for them to get to know each other. Breaking down assumptions and stereotypes between conflicted parties is a reasonable solution, but one which often makes matters worse before they get better.
If conflict is managed correctly, it can improve the quality of group decisions, stimulate creativity, and build cohesion and trust within a team. Although conflict can be positive, it is only constructive insofar as it is appropriately addressed and managed. Even task conflict that is initially productive can turn into relational conflict when a group fails to reach a consensus on group decisions. Members can respond negatively to individuals who challenge the status quo and “slow down the process” too much, but conflict is ultimately a necessary and essential component of team cohesion.
The worst type of conflict if the one left unaddressed. G360 Surveys helps teams navigate conflict by creating a space in which teams can candidly discuss strengths and weaknesses.