An Introduction to Conflict on Teams: What Is Conflict and What Can Teams Do to Better Deal With It

We kick off our series about conflict on teams by talking about how conflict on teams forms, what the different kinds of conflict are, and learning more about conflict can help when dealing with problems that occur between team members.

It’s safe to say that teams are pretty busy these days. Dealing with massive changes all over the world, labor and supply shortages and the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely created more stress and anxiety for teams as well.

And where there is stress, conflict has a tendency to follow. That’s why we want to spend the next few weeks on our blog post talking about conflict on teams: what it is, how it forms, and how to deal with it. 

Conflict is a natural part of all teams, since teams are composed of individuals. But the ways that teams think about conflict and learn how to proactively deal with it can help shape how severe that conflict becomes, whether it affects the team overall, and whether it can be turned into a jumping-off point that will lead to positive change and growth.

What is conflict?

First, let’s talk about what conflict actually is so that we can have a better understanding of conflict on teams. Conflict is any sort of dispute that occurs between different team members, but there are actually many different kinds of conflict, and many different ways of categorizing that conflict. Understanding the nature of different forms of conflict on teams can therefore be useful when it comes to finding the right way to resolve or manage it. 

Short term versus long term conflict

Short term conflicts are often called “disputes”, and usually pop up and go away very quickly. This is juxtaposed with long-term conflict, which can form as the result of long-standing issues or different opinions about a long-term project or goal. 

Short term conflicts will be relatively more easy to defuse and resolve, while long term conflicts might take greater work and energy, and may be related to more serious or deeper issues on the team.

Cognitive versus affective conflict

Cognitive conflict means conflict that is based on interacting with new ideas or new opinions. It comes from education, where people are often confronted with ideas that they may not be used to. The process of learning how to interact with new ideas in a way that produces a sort of synthesis or “middle ground” between the old ideas and the new ones is the basis of cognitive conflict. It therefore focuses on ideas or tasks and methods. 

On the other hand, affective conflict is about relating viewpoints to personalities. This is how conflicts tend to “get out of hand”. We don’t like an idea, and so we transfer our dislike of the idea to the dislike of the person themselves. This leads to a ratcheting up of the conflict itself, and also masks the original origin of the conflict, which is a conflict about ideas. It makes it harder as well, to actually find a middle ground, given that once personalities get involved, it can be harder to “back down” or “walk away” from a fight. 

Constructive versus disruptive conflict

Another way that we can look at conflict on teams is through the lens of constructive versus disruptive. A very major aspect of conflict on teams that we should mention here is that not all conflict is bad. Conflict gets a bad rap because it is often associated with fights and arguments (probably because affective conflict is much more dramatic and memorable). 

But conflict can be constructive too. When conflict occurs, especially when it is based on discussing ideas or methods, it can lead to greater growth in the future, or new ideas. Even some conflict based on relationships can be good if it makes the team more aware of structural or long-term issues that have been going on, and allows for the team to look at changing its culture or dynamics.   

Disruptive conflict, however, is just that–disruptive to the progress of the team and its growth. Disruptive conflict will generally be more backward-looking, focusing on old issues or getting the team stuck in the same spiral of conflict over and over with no resolution. In this way, disruptive conflict also leads to teams regressing, or limiting their ability to move forward on their plans.  

Origins of conflict on teams

Now that we have some ways of categorizing different types of conflict on teams, we can look at some of the most common origins of conflicts. The origins of conflict on teams can be organized by whether they are localized or systemic.

Localized origins of conflicts are usually easier to perceive and address. They generally relate to a particular conflict between individuals, or difficulties with one or more individuals in assimilating into the team, and aren’t as widespread. They typically aren’t related to the general “environment” of the team (unless they are symptoms of wider issues), and so it will be easier for teams to directly address them.

Systemic issues go deeper, and relate to broader organizational or structural issues that can often cause recurring conflicts or problems. The way to address these conflicts involve taking a larger view of the team and how it operates, and requires cooperation on a team-wide level in order to make significant changes to resolve the issue or at least move in a better direction.  

Both of the lists below are not exhaustive, and are just meant to outline some of the most common origins of conflict on teams. 

Localized origins

  • Miscommunication: Conflict often arises from miscommunication between team members, or between management and other employees. Misunderstandings about views and opinions, and a lack of clear communication are common causes of conflicts.
  • Access to resources: No team has unlimited resources. So gaining access to resources can create conflicts among team members or between groups within teams. This includes access to money, time, mentoring opportunities, days off, better schedules, etc.
  • Pride and competitiveness: Feelings of pride can lead team members to take things more personally, especially when positions are involved. Also the competitiveness of team members can lead to conflict when team members need to work together.
  • Lack of inclusivity: When team members don’t feel included in the team, this can lead to interpersonal conflicts. Team members who don’t feel included may be resentful and not participate as fully in the team, which will lead to greater issues. There may also be explicit or implicit bullying involved as well. 
  • Rejection of norms: On the other hand, some team members may actively reject the norms of the rest of the team, which will inevitably lead to conflicts with other team members as well as management.  
  • Individual differences: Individual differences in work styles, personalities, beliefs or backgrounds can also lead to conflicts between team members. These types of conflicts may not be able to be fully resolved, but will have to be managed so as not to lead to disruptive conflict that affects the rest of the team.

Systemic origins

  • Lack of clear or common goal: When your team doesn’t have a clear goal to work towards, or when the team loses focus on that goal, conflicts tend to arise. Goals help coordinate and harmonize teams, not having a clear orientation for the team allows chaos about which direction to go to take root. 
  • Lack of trust: Trust is the main foundation of teams. So when teams lose trust in each other, the cohesive glue that maintains steady and working relationships on teams wears away. This leads to much more individual and team-wide conflicts.
  • Lack of forward motion: Team members need to feel as if the team is moving somewhere and developing. When teams feel stuck in place, this can create negativity and pessimism, which can then lead to more conflict. 
  • Work culture and environment: This one of the largest categories for causes of conflict on teams. It encompasses systemic issues like how inclusive your environment is, how much overwork you demand of team members, and how psychologically safe your team is. When cultures and environments are the cause of conflicts, more transformational methods of dealing with conflict may be necessary.  

How to better prepare your team to handle conflicts  

We will delve into the details of conflict resolution, conflict management and other ways of dealing with conflict on teas in further blog posts. But for now, the following are some ways to better lay the groundwork for handling conflict on your teams.

1. Practice open and honest communication

Communication is the key to preventing and dealing with many kinds of conflicts. Teams that communicate openly with each other, share their feelings, and promote empathy and listening will have a better time managing conflicts and give teams clues as to when conflicts may be approaching. 

2. Build  a foundation of trust

Trust is key on teams, and as we said earlier, a lack of trust can be a harbinger for systemic conflicts. But trust is also invaluable for solving conflicts. When team members trust each other, they will be more able to have productive conflicts that aren’t taken as personally. Trust has other benefits too, like increasing team motivation and feelings of inclusiveness.

3. Promote responsibility and accountability

Responsibility and accountability on teams can often temper conflicts by showing team members that actions have consequences. This is especially true for leadership, who can act as role models and demonstrate actions that work to de-escalate conflicts, which will engender a more cooperative working environment with less disruptive conflicts.

4. Have clear goals and look to the future

Goals are future-oriented by nature, and so having clear and communicable goals can create forward looking teams that will have less effective or disruptive conflicts. You want productive conflicts over ideas and how to achieve goals, so orienting your team towards the future and the promise of fulfilling meaningful goals will create more optimism on your team. Remember, whether conflicts are good or bad depends on whether they open your team to the future, or get your team bogged down in the past. 

Conclusion: Team building and conflict on teams

In this post we’ve laid out an introduction for how to start thinking about conflict on teams. Conflicts don’t have to be bad or disruptive, but they often are thought of that way because teams don’t take the time to lay the groundwork that reduces a lot of the petty and affective conflicts that disrupt teams from getting to the truly productive and forward-looking conflicts that matter more in the long-run.

That’s where team building can help. Team building helps build trust on teams, strengthens communication, encourages goal-setting, and promotes forward-looking and creative teams that are capable of dealing productively with a whole range of issues, including conflicts. Scheduling regular team building activities, like the ones at Invite Japan, is one the best methods available for getting your team on the same page and proactive about dealing with conflicts, both before and after they arise.     

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