Conflicts on teams occur all the time, but what can team members do to actually solve them? We look at the most common methods of dealing with conflict, how they differ, and when to use each one.
Conflicts on Teams
We know that conflicts on teams are a natural part of the process of teamwork. After all, teams are composed of individuals, each with their own personality, hopes, dreams, and preferences. This is what gives teams their edge–they combine the best aspects of their team members to accomplish great things.
However, this process of combination necessarily entails some friction, which most often takes form as conflicts on teams. As we explained in our last blog though, conflicts don’t need to be bad or disruptive. Constructive conflict that is future-oriented and deals with ideas (and which doesn’t drag the team down into interpersonal conflict) is actually quite good and even necessary.
But this doesn’t always happen when conflict enters the scene. Teams therefore need methods for dealing with conflict, and for harnessing and redirecting that conflict towards productive ends. This can mean at the very least ensuring that the conflict is contained between as few members as possible and doesn’t spill over into other areas.
In the best case scenario, though, teams might be able to transform conflict into a way to become aware of potential issues and fix them. Teams could also work to make conflict the locus of new ideas and a means of merging the various thoughts and opinions of the team.
So there are multiple ways of thinking about conflicts on teams and how to deal with them. Of course, this will depend on the situation. If two team members are having a serious interpersonal conflict, then you might need to resolve the issue as soon as possible before it gets out of hand.
On the other hand, if there is widespread dissatisfaction within the team that is leading to lashing out here and there, a more widespread and transformative approach may be necessary, which might also require more time and patience.
Methods for dealing with conflicts on teams
The most common method for dealing with conflicts on teams, which most people are probably familiar with, is conflict resolution. Conflict resolution has a lot of applications, including among negotiators, so it is widely used to resolve conflicts or at least temper them so that productive discussions can occur.
But there are two other major methods for handling conflicts on teams. Conflict management is a newer term that emphasizes directing conflict towards cooperation and collaboration. Finally, conflict transformation seeks to place the conflict within broader systems and structures, allowing for more long-lasting and widespread change (transformation).
As the name suggests, conflict resolution seeks to resolve or end a conflict (for as long as possible). It therefore stresses the use of mitigation and de-escalation tools, like using a neutral third-party or space, calming both sides down, discussing the various grievances on both sides, and coming up with constructive ways of settling the issue at hand.
This last point is important, because conflict resolution is useful for many short-term or single-issue conflicts that occur. For example, if a heated argument breaks out at a meeting, using conflict resolution techniques can help calm the two sides down in the moment, and perhaps deal with underlying reasons for the lash-out in a subsequent, more private environment. Conflict resolution would not work as well in a situation where everyone in the meeting was upset and fighting.
To sum up, conflict resolution is suitable for:
- Conflicts where there are two clear sides.
- Conflicts on teams that are acute or short-term.
- Conflicts on teams resulting from miscommunications, or misperceptions.
- Task and role-related conflicts on teams. .
- Minimizing the damage of conflicts in the moment and de-escalating intense situations.
Conflict management stresses the constructive side of conflict. WIthin certain conflicts, especially ones that are more about ideas and viewpoints, there is always the possibility of collaboration and cooperation at the end, which opens up the possibilities of how we think about conflict in general.
So conflict management is about harnessing conflicts towards productive ends. In terms of conflicts on teams, that means ensuring that ideas can be expressed openly without spilling over into interpersonal relationships, and creating an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, where ideas can be melded and combined, rather than pitted against each other.
Because of this, conflict resolution is often more useful for longer-term conflicts about differing fundamental viewpoints, where the goal is not to necessarily let go, but rather to shift the perspective on the conflict and come together in the end. Conflict management can also be used to prevent some of the more intense conflicts that might require conflict resolution.
Conflict management is useful for:
- Conflicts on teams that are longer-term or team-wide.
- Conflicts on teams that are idea or viewpoint-based.
- Other conflicts that have no clear resolution point, and in which both sides must continue to work together.
- Preventing interpersonal conflicts from spilling over into work or vice-versa.
- Creating a collaborative environment for constructive conflict can occur safely.
Finally, conflict transformation is the newest method for handling conflicts on teams (in fact, I had never heard about it either before researching this post). However, it seems to fill in a gap that is left empty by the previous two methods–the organization of the team and issues with workplace structure and culture.
Conflict transformation seeks to place conflicts on teams, and conflicts in general, within the wider context of structures, systems, institutions, etc. And it emphasizes transformation as a way to restructure the environment so that disruptive conflicts don’t occur in the future.
For example, if there is a case of bullying or harassment on a team, it might indicate issues with the wider culture or structure. Is there a culture of competitiveness that allows bullying to take place? Is the management structure such that superiors are unable or unwilling to deal with the situation effectively? Or are employees afraid to speak out about their experiences?
As you can clearly see, conflict transformation requires more long-term changes, which aren’t always so easy to do in a short time span. So conflict transformation isn’t so useful at dealing with or de-escalating acute conflicts at the moment.
Conflict transformation works well for:
- Long-term structural issues that cause conflicts on teams.
- Conflicts on teams related to organizational structure or culture.
- Underlying issues that may appear as conflicts, like burnout, lack of team unity, or inequities.
- Conflicts on teams that require widespread changes.
Conflict Resolution versus Conflict Management: What’s the difference?
Perhaps the biggest source of confusion when it comes to these methods about handling conflicts on teams is the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management. Though they may sound the same, or be hard to differentiate, they are actually very separate concepts, and can have profoundly different effects when it comes to handling conflicts on teams.
One of the main aspects of the difference between the two is how conflicts are “resolved” or whether they can even be resolved at all. Conflict resolution says there is a resolution or ending point, even if it is only temporary. The conflict is ended when both sides are “healed” and the situation has been de-escalated. Both sides accept whatever agreement is negotiated about the end of the conflict, and move on.
Conflict management, however, understands that some conflicts have no complete resolution. Yes, it is important to calm down the immediate conflict if it becomes aggressive or violent, but when there are conflicts over ideas or viewpoints, there often is no real “solution”. What teams can do in this situation, is find a way forward where both sides feel that their opinions and ideas are being heard.
In this way, under conflict management it becomes possible to separate ideas from interpersonal conflicts, which occur when people feel that their status or personality is threatened because of their ideas. When the conflict is focused on ideas or viewpoints, it becomes easier to figure out a collaborative solution that melds the two sides together and offers a way to harness the conflict towards productive ends.
The above has been an overview of the three main methods of handling conflicts on teams. And really, we’ve only scratched the surface to talk about the general philosophies and points and view of each method (continue reading our blog posts, where we will get more into practices and methodologies).
The main takeaway though, is that how to deal with conflicts on teams depends a lot on what kind of conflict it is, but mostly whether the conflict is disruptive or constructive. For disruptive conflicts, you want to deal with the acute conflict, as well the underlying issues that have led to it. On the other hand, if the conflict is constructive, then you want to control it so it doesn’t get out of hand, while harnessing it so that it expands the team’s potential for greater collaboration.
Recognizing that difference, and being able to shape the environment so that your tea has more constructive conflicts than disruptive ones, takes time and practice. That’s why we at Invite Japan are here to teach you team building skills that will help you manage conflict, and create trusting and collaborative teams.