The plethora of literature available on this topic plays testament to the importance and sweeping relevance of team conflict in the contemporary workplace. Two minds are better than one goes the old adage, and in the workplace teamwork continues to reward those who cultivate it well. However, where you find synergy and collaboration, you are just as bound to find friction: “conflict arises from differences, and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict,” writes Carole A. Townsley in an article for The Team Building Director. Our ideas multiply, but so do the challenges of being human. The good news? Educating yourself about team conflict can help you to lead your team through it – and rig the chances so you benefit more than you lose.
In all that ample literature on team conflict, most authors start by immediately dividing it into two categories: positive or negative, helpful or harmful, functional or dysfunctional. The point is that even though conflict might be the number-one problem in teamwork, some of that conflict isn’t so bad, and sometimes it’s downright helpful. Good team conflict, whatever you want to call it, “encourages the expression of new ideas which can lead to new and better ways of doing business. It can also expose weaknesses in operational procedures and policies and highlight challenges that have the potential to turn into chronic problems if ignored.” Additionally, digging into tensions might help a team to unearth underlying assumptions or issues that are holding it back.
That said, the destructive potential of negative team conflicts shouldn’t be underestimated. Writing off a dangerous conflict as a few squabbles can allow it to get out of hand, stagnating productivity, bringing down a project, or laying the ground for something worse.
This two-faced character of team conflict makes responding to it a difficult challenge – it’s helpful to map out why working in teams causes us so much trouble in the first place.
The sources of team conflict can make up quite a laundry list, but for the purpose of analysis it’s more instructive to observe general categories and trends.
Townsley cites G.H. Varney’s classification of team conflicts into three general categories: communication factors, structural factors, and personal factors. Bad communication habits on the team, such as poor listening or failure to communicate important information, can breed a lot of difficulties. A positive conflict that explores tensions related to communication factors might help clarify that there’s a problem, but over the long term communication troubles can breed insidious – and often unnecessary – misunderstandings. Structural factors relate to the context in which the teamwork is taking place: group size, reward systems, incentivized competitiveness, or structural emphasis on employee interdependence. All of these will all encourage team dynamics in different directions regarding conflict. It’s important to note that structural factors cannot be located as problems amongst or in the employees themselves. Personal factors, on the other hand, relate to the particular needs and experiences of different employees – a sense of insecurity, for example, sensitivity about a particular issue, or differences in goals and expectations among team members.
Jennifer Whitt from projectmanager.com takes a different approach, reminding us that team conflict follows the ebbs and flows of group development and project stages. A group is likely to face particular kinds of challenges when it is just forming, versus further down the line when it is under the heat of performing. Similarly, the different stages of a project, from the planning stage through execution and eventually to closing it down, will place different pressures and be likely to ignite certain kinds of conflicts typical for each stage.
Getting to know some of the theory around team conflict can help us prepare for it. Knowing it’s normal, and even built-in, to the collaborative process keeps us from being caught off guard. It can also help us identify and plan for destructive elements that should be avoided. Come back next week to read about leadership strategies for managing team conflicts and maintaining the benefits of dynamic teamwork.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.