Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

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Conflicts are an inevitable part of any relationship. In general, it is believed that conflict is something bad, destructive, it is blamed for causing disagreements, arguments, divorces, violence etc., and thus it is assumed that it should be avoided at all costs. However, we will aim to shed the light on both sides of the coin arguing that conflict can exert positive effects on relationships under certain circumstances – and if managed properly.

“One of the most outstanding aspects of conflict is that it is practically intrinsic to the life and dynamics of teams” (Medina 2005: 219). Generally, “conflict is a process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party”, and a tentative agreement has been reached on the definition of “the other party” stating that it is “blocking the party’s interest(s) or goal(s)” (Wall et al. 1995: 517). Conflict theorists tend to write about two types of conflict: task conflict (also C-type conflict, cognitive conflict, task-focused conflict), which is usually perceived as positive, and relationship conflict (or A-type conflict, affect conflict), which is considered negative.

Effective teams learn to take advantage of the diversity of their members and of their capabilities (Amason et al. 1995: 25). Most effective teams take into account the two types of conflicts. Such teams can develop abilities or attributes that are essential for team effectiveness: focused activity (concentrating on the core issue), creativity, integration (fullest possible use of all team members), open communication. According to Amason et al. (1995), conflict is “a learning process” through which team members begin to understand what is the purpose of a decision and what role are they going to have in it.

Jehn and Mannix (2001) associated higher group performance with a particular pattern of conflict. In effective teams they found low (but increasing) levels of process conflict, low levels of relationship conflict (which increased with approaching project deadlines), and moderate levels of task conflict at the midpoint of the process. Findings of the research show that conflict must be observed as a dynamic process.

Researchers used to pay attention merely to negative effects of conflict, whereas nowadays they also started to look into advantageous effects on team performance. Many studies that established positive effects of task conflict on performance at the same time found negative effects of task conflict on the satisfaction of team members (Jehn 1995).

Most conflicts react positively to attempts to manage them. The team leader can use a combination of different strategies to build a supporting culture. Amason (1995) suggests that the leader can disseminate a full meeting agenda early (also discuss less controversial items first), state the philosophy for the team and backup that philosophy, provide the right environment for the meeting (e.g. seating arrangement can be assigned in advance, round tables), have behavioural strategies to run the meeting in mind before the meeting begins (the leader should exhibit and foster openness and cooperativeness), keep a sense of where the discussions are going, channel discussion from relationship conflict toward task conflict (the group must stay focused on positive aspects), support the team (“us”-mentality), be proactive and reactive, not passive.

Wall et al. (1995: 518) mentions the following causes of conflict: individual characteristics, interpersonal factors, communication, behaviour, structure, previous interactions and issues. Research has shown that effective teams have high levels of task conflict and norms promoting open discussion of task issues. Relationship conflict was always detrimental, no matter which type of task the group was performing. The author also offers some suggestions for managing conflicts (1995: 549): conflict should not be allowed to accumulate, it is better to avoid conflict from the beginning than manage it later, however, sometimes conflicts cannot be avoided and must be addressed. If the issues can be identified, they should be transformed into a manageable set, and they should be approached pragmatically.

Conflict management is extremely important in today’s world. E.g., the study conducted by Medina (2005:256) demonstrates that conflict is a multi-layer phenomenon and that can be “interpersonal or task-focused, destructive or productive, and can be managed, ignored, or barely tolerated”. Organizations that seek to be successful in this ever-changing business environment, should carefully consider in what way they want to take care of this issue; namely improper management could cost them dearly. Here we have been able to observe how complex, multi-dimensional and dynamic conflict in fact is. That makes management even harder. Therefore it is essential that managers/team leaders have proper knowledge and techniques to be able to handle conflict in the right way. Organizations should invest significantly in their training in order to prevent unnecessary mistakes.

To sum up, most studies found that relationship conflict has a negative effect on team performance and satisfaction, whereas opinions on task conflict varied. Most researchers think that it is generally beneficial, or that it can elicit negative responses under certain circumstances – apart from one study that found both types of conflict equally disruptive. Further research should be encouraged to identify specific circumstances under which task conflict improves team performance.

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