Reflection: Managing Team Conflict In The Workplace

The Challenges of Managing Team Conflict In The Workplace

This reflection considers managing conflict in the workplace, and how to approach and channel it with purpose. There are thousands of conflict articles and publications that advise on resolution and termination of conflict in the workplace. Much of this is unnecessary and fails to consider the wider perspective that sometimes conflict can be useful.

The understanding of conflict can aid in areas such as effectiveness, challenge or viewing it from an ethical based perspective. Conflict is part of our everyday life both in and out of work. This, in part, is due to the difference in viewpoints and the necessity to perform tasks that sit uncomfortably with us.

Approaches can have a lasting impact on the way we acquire knowledge and information and how we approach solutions. Viewed differently, this view can be powerful and aid in attaining differing perspectives and therefore quality solutions.

A View of Conflict

When conflict occurs, there is an incompatibility of activities, our thoughts and our internal values. Values form through our early development and upbringing, comprising of our deeply held inner beliefs.  From a people management perspective there are two types:

  • Inter-individual conflict – conflict viewed between two people.
  • Intra-individual conflict – this differs from the above as this would be conflict within the same person.

From a leadership perspective, the development of your people relies heavily on being able to spot patterns of behaviour. When team members are in their comfort zone you view behaviour that you would see when things are going well.  Even in the stretch zone, you may still view activities as within their competence-base.

Some research suggests that there are no specific rules under which we can manage either circumstance effectively. This is very much down to the leader and the notion of when to step in and consider the situation. Intra-individual conflict is an interesting concept as when this occurs, it is purely down to the situation and the activity they perform. The important element here is to understand the behavioural changes. What signs are they displaying through their behaviour and when do you step in?

Behavioural Conflict

As with most roles we perform, there will be activities we enjoy and don’t. The approach we take and the behaviour we choose determines the behaviour we show. An argument regarding the competence of the individual, and to some degree, their maturity level will determine their behaviour. They may not like the activity yet view it as essential to moving on. Individuals may approach the task in a variety of ways, such as spreading the task out.

What is not acceptable is the approach of procrastination or purposeful delay of that task based on like and dislike. This is especially important to manage if this work holds up others. Managing intra-individual conflict requires discussion and an agreed working methodology. Adopting this could be the improvement of skills, task management or simply an explanation of why the work is necessary.  The important thing is not to ignore it.

Managing the Conflict Trigger

How many times have we seen or heard managers view this scenario and avoid discussing the conflict? Avoiding a discussion is to miss an opportunity to dig deeper into the scenario. It doesn’t allow the individual to consider the conflict trigger. If the scenario is inter-individual, there is the opportunity to mine for the difference, to understand the conflict triggers. More than this, allowing the conflict to continue yet managing the environment could lead to creative solutions or a tighter process.

Businessman shouting into a white telephone
Managing the Conflict Trigger

When faced with these incidents, it is appropriate to hit the pause button and recognise this with the team member. It may be the case that they hadn’t even noticed themselves that some inner conflict may have surfaced. It also allows leaders to consider the impact on the individual, an opportunity to know them and reflect together. Through this, we gain a deeper understanding that can only strengthen working relationships.

Types of Conflict

Certain types of conflict have no place in organisations. This type of conflict has a significant negative impact designed to hurt or discriminate. Conflict of this kind does require elimination as it has no place and no positive effect. Academics Karen Jehn and Allen Amason have identified types of conflict as:

  • Affective Conflict – Conflict that highlights the inconsistency in interpersonal relationships. This affects relationships and can interfere with performance due to the focus on the personal element.
  • Substantial Conflict – Conflict that occurs between two team or group members on a task issue. A moderate amount of this kind aids discussion and debate, aiming for higher performance or a better outcome.

Substantive conflict does require managing to ensure it does not stray into affective conflict. Positive conflict relating to disagreements on task, policy, and organisational issues are to be encouraged. This improvement is multi-faceted as it allows the leader to understand the source while enhancing performance and interactions. Within this interaction, there is a change from dysfunction into something useful and tangible.

The creativity that could be enabled here is an opportunity to enhance that difference of thought and approach. If the manager has a true investment in the team, then they should consider opportunities like these. Ultimately the manager has accountability over the final decision; however, this is less important than the actual transactions taking place.

Handling Conflict

Most of us experience conflict in some way during the day. Examples could be an aggressive driver, a news article that rubs against our values. If we consider relationship theory regarding conflict, it asks us to consider outward behaviour. Conflict appears through an inner value system. Elias Porter, PhD, calls this inner element our motivational value system.

We can also refer to this as our ‘self-worth’. Self-worth is our anchor. It comes from all kinds of influences. How we were brought up, how people of authority impacted on us and our own experiences. We act out our behaviour according to our self-worth. This becomes more nuanced as we mature and behaviour is normalised. You wouldn’t expect to see a manager stomping their feet because a decision has not gone their way! However, in this instance, our behaviour may change as we feel conflicted.

Actually handling and managing conflict in others takes real strength of awareness. Not only are we trying to manage our own behaviour, but we are also required to be observant of others. Through this observation, we can, over time, begin to understand the pattern and begin to appreciate the when and what.

The pattern for being effective is:

    • Awareness – viewing the conflict and knowing the triggers in the change of behaviour.
    • Understanding – knowing the behaviour change and the pattern that will follow.
    • Acceptance – appreciating that the individual(s) may react in a certain way and being prepared to treat this with respect.
    • Effectiveness – appropriately using the conflict pattern to great effect.  Knowing when this could be personal and managing this for a better outcome.

Managing Conflict Tactically

Knowing that individuals may feel conflicted over a variety of scenarios can be difficult to constantly manage. Further to this, the expectation to manage this on every occurrence is not possible. A leader or a manager cannot be expected to ‘be there’ at every turn. This is akin to running to the teacher every time something happened we did not agree with.  If we know, or at least have an idea when conflict may occur, we can tactically manage this.

If our aim is to be truly effective as a team, we each have a responsibility for managing ourselves and appreciating others. Quite often you will hear comments, such as, ‘this will cause a fuss’ or ‘let’s see how this plays out with Alex’. If we know the scenario will cause a reaction, we can prepare for it. In this instance, we can at least prepare the individual.

Team Management of Conflict

Through the development of the team, either a new team or an existing one, there usually is ample opportunity to view transactions. These will either be inter or intraindividual conflict and the observations are key.  Relationship theory suggests we move through three areas of conflict, conflict one being the move from our ‘normal’ behaviour to three being deep conflict.

We view day to day behaviour in daily transactions when the behaviour that we are observing changes.   This change in behaviour suggests that we need to defend our self-worth and therefore adopt differing behaviour. This can vary from person to person. Conflict is often misjudged as becoming aggressive, a typical view of anger is standing, raised voice and more animated. This is only one of three behaviours.  Another type is becoming visibly upset and hurt, and the third, we move to fact finding mode trying to ascertain facts.

Conflict Adaptability

Dealing with stage one conflict asks us to observe the change in behaviour when it arises. The intention behind the behavioural change is viewed in three ways:

  • Needing to accommodate others – talking through the conflict with feeling and emotion.
  • Asserting oneself – dealing with the issue now and move on.
  • Analysing the situation – a factual approach to the conflict with emotion taken away.

These approaches are understood through the diagnostic Strength Deployment Inventory. This tool follows the relationship theory by Elias Porter. If we consider the above, we have three contrasting approaches to conflict. If we consider the accommodation of others and the factual approach, we have different needs and requirements. This, in itself, is the challenge, however, it is important to deal with it. To walk away is to ignore it.

Two people sitting on their respective chairs, having a conversation
Dealing with stage one conflict asks us to observe the change in behaviour when it arises

The simplest way to consider managing the conflict is to recognise it and to ask the question, ‘how would you like to work through this?’ Even a direct approach would show an understanding of the behaviour change. Such as, ‘you seem conflicted, talk this through with me’. This provides respect and dignity to the individual through recognition of the conflict.

As stated, if the conflict comes from a task or an output, we have the opportunity to draw out creative responses. This approach is often seen as a ‘difficult conversation’ and yet provides the simplest of methods. The response of the individual can then be directed by them. In some cases, they will want to discuss the cause of the conflict. Other times will be to set the cause aside and discuss how they feel. Conflict adaptation requires an understanding of the situation and self-adjustment to move through the conflict.

Final Thoughts

The role of leader and manager is to ensure that we provide an environment based on authenticity, dignity and respect. Through this, we provide an arena that allows skills and capability to flourish for performance at the highest level. We all have self-motivations for achieving and this looks very different from person to person.

When we have tasks or people that don’t enable these motivations it can cause conflict. Some are allowable and enhance creativity, however, discriminatory conflict has no place. Managing conflict will be effective when you recognise and discuss the signs in a safe and purposeful environment. To ignore it is to shut out an important behavioural aspect, as well as, potentially, overlook an opportunity to understand.

The art of managing conflict is to observe, appreciate and act when this occurs. When acted upon and performed with purpose and respect, then this is the foundations of high performance.

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