Conflict Management and Resolution for Teams “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.” — John Dewey.
When a group of individuals with varying experiences, thought processes and expectations work together as a team, conflict is inevitable. While many people see conflict as a sign of failure, teams can potentially use conflict as an asset. Understanding conflict dynamics and cultural approaches to conflict management help teams to distill key points vital to a successful and productive resolution of team conflict.
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There are four basic types of conflict: emotional, cognitive, constructive and destructive. Emotional and destructive conflicts lead to an inability to resolve issues. Cognitive and constructive conflicts are a necessary part of finding successful solutions as a team.
Emotional conflict is “personal, defensive, and resentful” (Thompson, Aranda, and Robbins, 2000) and of is based on anger, personality clashes, ego and tension. Emotional conflict occurs when individual interests trump the interests of the team as a whole. This type of conflict interferes with the effort of a team to resolve a problem.
Cognitive conflict occurs when team members voice different ideas and is “largely depersonalized” (Thompson, Aranda, and Robbins, 2000). As opposed to emotional conflict, his type of conflict is based on arguments about the merits of ideas, plans and projects. Because cognitive conflict is not based on personal feelings, it forces team members to rethink problems and arrive at a collective decision.
Constructive conflict, as the name suggests, helps teams resolve problems and uncover new solutions to old issues in a productive manner (Thompson, Aranda, and Robbins, 2000). It allows change and growth to occur within a team environment.
Destructive conflict, like emotional conflict, causes dysfunction when a “lack of common agreement leads to negativism” (Thompson, Aranda, and Robbins, 2000). This disrupts the progress of all group members. Destructive conflict in teams diminishes the possibility of any problem resolution.
Understanding and defining conflict terminology and conflict management is a first and important step in successful conflict management. Since conflict is inevitable in any team or group situation, groups must cooperate to reach a successful resolution of any issues. Western conflict management theory places an emphasis on understanding and cooperation for the successful and permanent resolution of conflict.
Since more than one issue, and more than one type of conflict, often is involved in the conflict, successful conflict management and resolution depend on a number of factors. Among them, teams must understand the different responses to conflict among team members.
Regardless of your worldview, whether Marxist, realist, liberal or another view, conflict is universal. Consequently, there are many theories on the topic of conflict management. While you will find no single definition of conflict management, many theories have been produced that attempt to explain conflict and ways to avoid or resolve conflicts.
As explained earlier, Western conflict management is ultimately based on cooperation. Each contending worldview falls somewhere along this cooperation continuum. Most teams have individual members who fall into each category.
On one extreme, a realist who believes in conflict as a zero-sum game without compromise would see team conflict as a war. From a realist worldview, teams submit ideas and fight until a clear winner emerges. To a realist, this is the only true method of resolving conflict. A liberal worldview, however, would advocate compromise or mediation to address team conflict. Others holding a more extreme liberal viewpoint might prefer to avoid conflict altogether to ensure that conflict resolution is not necessary.
Recent scandals in corporate America illustrate the shortfalls of this “commercial” liberal viewpoint. Rather than face potentially acrimonious disputes, corporate boards quietly signed off or ignored the abusive and illegal actions of executives. This avoidance of conflict at all costs led to the exacerbation of corporate abuses at companies like Tyco International and Enron.
Given these contending worldviews and others, we can explore how western societies may approach conflicts and conflict management. We can gain a better understanding of these approaches through international relation theory since the international arena is the largest “team” and accounts for some of the most pointed conflicts.
According to Professor Joseph Nye, “Since recurrent armed conflicts are frequently the product of enduring rivalries between pairs of hostile states, addressing and resolving animosities and problems in particular relationships is clearly a way to avert violent conflicts” (Nye, 1987). Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his 1832 treatise On War that war is an instrument of policy, and that a nation’s aim is to impose this policy on another nation or group of nations (Rosinski, 1976).
This clear realist theory can be applied to corporate boardrooms as well. Conflict is an instrument by which decision-makers impose their will on other team members. Clearly, this theory is based on a realist’s zero-sum game. Using Clausewitz’s theory, one team member’s ideas must “win” and other team member’s ideas must “lose” in order to resolve conflict.
Western conflict resolution explores the idea of achieving mutually beneficial terms to resolve a dispute through cooperation. This means that each team member must hear and understand the position of each other team member not only from their own perspective but the perspective of other team members as well. If an emotional conflict emerges, members may try to impose their will on others. Team members who are embroiled in emotional conflict will feel as though they are yielding ground if other team members overrule their suggestions.
Likewise, if a team member is less concerned about their ideas and goals than others, that team member will avoid conflict because the costs outweigh the benefits. In between these two extremes is cognitive and constructive conflict, where team members balance the ideas, goals and concerns of all team members in reaching a negotiated resolution.
In the international arena, both realists who subscribe to Clausewitz’s war theories and liberals would agree that cooperation between states results in mutual benefit. However, realists and liberals disagree on the situations where multilateral cooperation is beneficial. Realists point to empirical results that show cooperation is only useful when setting limited standards, such as in telecommunications with various networking standards or in international shipping with the INCOTERMS conventions. These results show that when multilateral actions, such as economic sanctions, fail, their failures are due to enforcement (i.e. conflict resolution) problems and not bargaining or conflict management issues (Fearon, 1998).
The ultimate, albeit rarely attainable, conflict resolution is one where all team members achieve their goals and where the conflict has been permanently resolved. Robert Axelrod, a leading author on conflict management, offers a compelling theory on the importance of cooperation in resolving conflicts.
Robert Axelrod’s Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates the power of cooperation in leading to successful and permanent resolutions of conflict (Axelrod, 1984). Axelrod set up a game theory around a seemingly simple scenario. In Axelrod’s Dilemma game, two players are given the choice to “cooperate” or “defect”. Axelrod’s game got its name from a hypothetical situation where two alleged criminals are detained for questioning in a crime. The police do not have enough evidence to convict either criminal. The two prisoners are isolated from each other and interrogated. The police offer both men a deal: offer evidence against the other detainee and go free.
If neither accepts the offer, but cooperate with each other through silence, both will receive only a small punishment due to the lack of evidence. However, if one betrays the other by confessing, he will gain the most by being freed and given immunity. The prisoner whose silent cooperation was not returned by the other prisoner will face the full punishment for the crime. If both prisoners betray the other, then both will be punished. In this case, both will be punished less severely than if they had refused to talk at all. The dilemma is that both prisoners have a choice between a good and bad decision, but cannot make a good decision without knowing what the other prisoner will do.
In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, only cooperation, and placing importance on the other person’s interests, can avoid the lose-lose situation of punishment. This cooperation forms the foundation of Western conflict management theory. To achieve this cooperation, each team member must understand each side’s positions, interests and needs (Miall, Ramsbotham, and Woodhouse, 1999). Teams can sometimes have difficulty developing this understanding. Each member’s understanding is coloured by his or her views, personal agendas and objectives.
Third parties to a conflict, whether leaders or outside mediators, can often intervene to help bridge the different ideas and goals among team members, leading to better understanding and the ultimate goal of cooperation. These third parties must be able to identify and manage potential conflicts to achieve a successful resolution.
As mentioned above, conflict is universal and occurs in all workplaces regardless of culture or industry. A leader must know how to identify the warning signs of conflict, and competently resolve the conflict so that individuals and teams can be productive. A successful leader, however, also knows how to recognize and leverage constructive conflict, which can be turned into an opportunity to gain new insights on a particular issue, or even find a creative solution to a difficult problem.
In order to resolve conflict, it is important to fully understand the principal elements that characterize conflict. One description of these elements is interdependence, interaction, and incompatible goals (University of Phoenix, 2001). Conflict, then, occurs when interdependent individuals or teams interact and perceive differences in goals and values. The other party is often viewed as “obstructing these goals or otherwise impeding progress” (p. 237). These perceptions lead to conflict. This interaction between individuals, groups, and organizations should be the focus of managers who wish to resolve the conflict. Communication is the conduit for resolving conflicts, as it is the only way to articulate conflict and define the issues at stake.
Sometimes teams can easily address conflict without intervention from management. For example, if there is a simple miscommunication about basic facts and data, teams can resolve conflict by communicating the correct information to all involved parties. However, complex conflict involving fundamental issues such as goals and values, may require intervention. In these cases, according to Johnson & Johnson (1994), leaders and mediators should follow a prescribed sequence of phases. Following this sequence will increase the likelihood of success, especially in difficult conflicts. These phases are: 1.Collect data. Obtaining the facts is critical. Leaders should also analyze the behaviors of all parties objectively.
2.Probe. By asking involving questions, leaders will encourage parties to communicate and listen to each other’s viewpoint.
3.Save face. Humiliating or embarrassing either party is counterproductive. Successful managers work toward a solution that is beneficial to the entire team.
4.Discover common interests. Discovering common interests establishes a common ground among team members. This common ground is the first step to an amicable solution.
5.Reinforce. By supporting common ground, leaders drive discussion toward a mutually agreeable resolution. Leaders must recognize the appropriate time to use the data collected in phase one.
6.Negotiate. In this phase, partial solutions or compromises should be formulated and presented to the parties involved. Leaders must continue reinforcing common ground toward a successful resolution.
7.Solidify adjustments. Leaders should review and confirm areas where the team reaches agreement. This is the final step in securing the approval of all team members and helps to solidify the final compromise.
Following this sequence of phases allows the parties in conflict to arrive at a successful resolution. Otherwise, discussion may slow down or stop at some point, frustration will increase and emotional and destructive conflict can occur.
As this sequence of phases implies, managers often must act as mediators to facilitate conflict resolution. Mediators, however, must have a clear strategy in order to assist in resolving conflicts. Among the strategies mediators can use in coping with conflict are taking two roles a mediator may take: ally and adversary (Johnson & Johnson, 1994).
As an ally, a mediator can use several strategies. The first strategy is collaboration. In this strategy, mediators identify the concerns of both parties, and develop alternative solutions that satisfy both sets of needs. The primary advantage of collaboration is that it encourages teamwork among both parties. The resolution is not a victory for one camp over another; instead it is the product of the collective creative energies of the teams. Often the best solutions are developed by collaboration. However, collaboration is time intensive and requires trust, and consequently may not always be the best approach. Collaboration is usually not appropriate when time is limited or animosity exists between both parties.
In these cases, a mediator acting as an ally can use compromise. Compromise involves finding a mutually suitable agreement for both parties. If both parties are willing to be flexible, a mediator can achieve resolution relatively quickly through compromise. All parties both gain and lose something, since successful compromise is mutual. Compromise is also useful as a backup tactic when collaboration fails. However, this strategy requires commitment to compromise from the outset.
As an adversary, a mediator can use competition to achieve resolution. Competition strategy places individual values above that of the other party. When using this strategy, a clear winner emerges. This realist strategy should be given careful consideration prior to implementation. Mediators must believe that a single side winning the conflict is in the best interest of the group. A mediator must also consider whether resolution through competition is worth the inevitable reduction in cooperation. While this strategy can ensure a quick decision, mediators must balance this outcome with the potential for reduced teamwork and damage to the integrity of the team as a whole.
Mediators can choose from numerous other methods of managing conflict that do not necessarily adhere to the above models. Often, it is possible to address potential issues before they become serious conflicts. Proactively managing potentially contentious issues through open discussion can allow teams to address these issues in an efficient and productive fashion. In these discussions, ensuring open and frank communication between all parties is the most vital task.
Other steps, such as choosing the right time to resolve conflict and avoiding threatening or insulting behaviour also contribute to the resolution.
Even humour is useful for diffusing a tense situation (Wescott, 1998). A joke at the right moment can relieve the tension in the room, allowing participants to return to the negotiations at hand. Laughter helps individuals to accept the other parties’ differences and makes the experience more enjoyable. Although it is usually appropriate for mediators to use themselves as the target of humour, the jokes should never belittle or insult anyone. Humour should support the talents of the individual or group, not point out their faults.
Conflict is inevitable within teams. Many people will handle conflict differently, some may take it personally, where others may withdraw or use conflict constructively and grow from the experience. Once teams identify conflicts and the responses to them, the group will need to take action to resolve the conflicts. Cooperation is the ultimate key for successful, permanent resolutions.
These methods and strategies are key components in a team’s collective portfolio of conflict management skills. Combining an understanding of the nature of the conflict, the range or responses in the culture of conflict, and the strategies associated with leveraging conflict to produce opportunity, teams can turn conflict into an opportunity.
Works Cited Axelrod, Robert M. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation (pp. 206-207). New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Broom, Michael F. (2002). The Infinite Organization: Celebrating the positive use of power in organizations. Davie-Black Publishing.
Fearon, James D. (Spring 1998)., “Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation,” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 2, 269.
Johnson, D.W. and Johnson, F. P. (1994). Joining Together Group Theory and Group Skills. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Beacon.
Miall, Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse (2001). Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention Management, and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts (pp. 9). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
Nye, Joseph S. (1987). Peace in Parts: Integration and Conflict in Regional Organizations (pp. 64 – 75). Boston: Little Brown.
Rosinski, Herbert (1976). “Scharnhorst to Schlieffen: The Rise and Decline of German Military Thought,” Naval War College Review 29 (pp. 83-103).
Thompson, Leigh, Eileen Aranda, and Stephen P. Robbins (2000). Tools for Teams. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
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