Life would be so much easier if we could make decisions in a vacuum, not worrying about what others thought. But that is not the reality in which we live and work. Today, the business world is focused more on collaboration and teamwork than ever before, so learning to use conflict as a strategic asset is more important than ever.

When a diverse group of people comes together to make a decision, conflict may arise if members of the group come with differing agendas and goals. However, conflict is not all bad. In fact, it can actually be beneficial. Conflict can help ensure that teams look at problems from all angles and consider all information.

Task Conflict vs. Relationship Conflict

Two types of conflict may appear in a group setting: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict can be beneficial to decision-making, while relationship conflict often creates obstacles.

Task conflict involves disagreement about the content of decisions and differences in viewpoints, ideas and opinions. Conflicts may occur over judgments and interpretations of facts, deployment of resources or necessary steps to complete a project.

Interpersonal incompatibility is at the center of relationship conflict. This type of conflict typically results in tension, annoyance and animosity among team members. It might manifest as conflicts over personal tastes, political preferences, values and interpersonal style. The most effective teams promote task conflict and avoid escalation of relationship conflict.

Common Hazards

Conflict management is not the same as conflict avoidance. Avoiding conflict altogether limits our opportunities to obtain valuable information that can affect the decision-making process.

For example, a team might go with the first suggestion offered simply to avoid a confrontation. However, the person making the suggestion may have made it only because he or she thought it would be met with the least resistance. The result? A decision that no one on the team really supports. A better decision could have been reached if the right type of conflict was in play.

While there are a number of process failures that can lead to unhealthy conflict within a team or let healthy conflict morph into the unhealthy type, these are some of the more common ones:

  • Using "Majority Rules" as a Decision Rule
    Team members who sense bias from the majority may shy away from offering dissenting opinions to avoid looking like the outsider or the impediment to making a decision.
  • Excessive Deference to Seniority or Other Unhelpful Status Characteristics
    There is a wealth of knowledge at all levels of an organization. Bad decisions result when we simply defer to the person with seniority or the one with the loudest opinion.
  • Attacking Dissenters
    Teams tend to look down on dissension since it increases the time it takes to make a decision. Similar to "majority rules," attacking those who dissent limits the number of diverse viewpoints offered during the decision-making process.

Encouraging Task Conflict

Teams should promote task conflict and avoid escalating relationship conflict. To accomplish this, try the following strategies:

  • Do Not Start a Meeting With a Vote
    Instead, begin by discussing the issues to flush out all available information. Then attempt to work through differences of opinion.
  • Do Not Compromise Solely to End the Conflict
    A team must recognize the value of debate because it can help everyone explore more issues and ultimately make a better decision.
  • Solicit Minority Opinion
    Make sure that your employees aren't keeping quiet just because they want to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that comes with siding with those who have the less popular view. After all, those who don't agree with the majority will produce some of the most valuable information.

Preventing the Escalation of Relationship Conflict

  • Focus on the Behavior/Issue, NOT the Individual
    This is the hardest — but most important — part of conflict management. When you find yourself in a debate that becomes personal, your natural tendency is to become defensive. Unfortunately, when multiple parties get defensive, a healthy conflict can quickly transform into an argument.
  • Give Feedback to Problematic Individuals
    Coach those who do make things personal. Help them approach differences by focusing on the behavior/issue at hand.
  • Isolate Negative Personality Traits
    This is done best by putting people into roles that emphasize their positive qualities and push negative ones to the background.

Working as a team can sometimes lead to conflict. Most of us tend to avoid conflict because it is uncomfortable. However, conflict can be significantly beneficial to decision-making if it is managed appropriately.

The first step is to learn how to spot different types of conflict. The next step is to apply general rules to manage both varieties. (Note that to do this, a team leader must listen carefully to team members and hear the messages they are communicating.)

Develop a process to follow when conflict arises. This creates consistency, which helps people understand how to deal with a tense situation. Ultimately, the ability to manage conflict can turn what you thought was a liability into one of your organization's greatest assets.

Tags: operations employee management