Many organizations, including colleges and major corporations, have begun the process of implementing work team systems. Teams present a greater diversity of knowledge, ideas, and experience than any one individual can offer. This diversity often helps to improve quality, create collaboration, enhance information exchange, and provide a sense of community and support to the team members (University of Phoenix, 2004); however, it can also foster conflict. Conflict is a part of everyday life and is generally caused by individual opinions and differences. “When individuals work in teams, differences in power, values, attitudes, and social factors can all contribute to conflict” (Kerr, 2005, para. 2). Avoiding conflict completely is impossible; however, the resulting outcome does not have to be negative. Using effective strategies to manage conflict can present positive consequences as well.
Prevention is usually the best cure for most problems. When all members participate in setting rules and guidelines, open communication and mutual understanding is created within the team that may defuse a conflict before it becomes a problem. “It is, after all, easier to agree on guidelines and processes everyone believes are fair when things are going well, rather than when the team members are in the midst of conflict” (Porter, 2003, p. 2). When the team makes these decisions as a group instead of receiving direct instructions from an authority figure, they are able to take ownership in the decision made and enforce it more effectively. In addition, various training courses and workshops are offered that team members can take advantage of to build awareness and acquire skills which could reduce or even prevent conflicts from arising in the first place. Some of these programs include team building, diversity training, communication workshops, and conflict management seminars (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
First Steps in Conflict Resolution
Despite exercising preventative measures, the possibility that conflict may occur still exists. When conflict does arise, the first step is to analyze and understand the problem. The team members should try to discover the causes and reasons for the disagreement. Each team member should examine their own individual response to the conflict and determine if their reactions are supportive of or interfering with the overall success of the team. The team members should also examine the consequences of not being able to solve the conflict, as well as discuss ways to settle the conflict within the team. Finally, the team should decide which conflict resolution strategy to apply to the situation (Porter, 2003).
Employing Conflict Resolution Strategies
After the team members have analyzed the conflict and have a complete understanding of the situation, they are then equipped to resolve the conflict by employing the conflict resolution strategy which they have decided upon as a team. “Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas, authors of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, have identified five general approaches to dealing with conflict: avoidance; accommodation; competition; compromise; and collaboration” (Porter, 2003, p. 3). Each style of dealing with conflict varies in the degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. Coopertiveness refers to the party’s desire to satisfy the other’s concern, and assertiveness describes the party’s desire to satisfy their own concern (Mind Tools, 2008). While most people generally have a preferred conflict resolution style, different styles can be useful in different situations. No one strategy is appropriate in all situations—each requires a different amount of time, energy, and cooperation.
This style of conflict resolution usually attracts people who are trying to evade conflict completely. In this instance, the parties are neither assertive nor cooperative (Mind Tools, 2008). Avoidance is usually demonstrated by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. This is an appropriate strategy to use when winning becomes impossible, when the conflict is unimportant, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. This strategy is sometimes used when the parties involved need time to control their emotions (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
This style of conflict resolution indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. In this instance, cooperation is high and assertiveness is low (Mind Tools, 2008). Accommodation allows a person to be persuaded to surrender his or her own position even though the submission is not justified. This is an appropriate strategy to use when issues are more important than the other party, when harmony is more valuable than winning, or when pacifying another person becomes important. This approach is sometimes used to establish goodwill that can be traded for favors in the future (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
This style of conflict resolution is often used by people who know what they want and take a firm stand; they are usually in a position of power or have a strong persuasive ability. In this instance, cooperation is low and assertiveness is high (Mind Tools, 2008). This is an appropriate strategy to use when an emergency occurs and a decision needs to be made quickly, when the decision is not a popular one, or when one party is trying to exploit the situation. However, this style can cause unsatisfied or resentful feelings in some team members when used in less urgent situations (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
This style of conflict resolution is often used to find a solution that will partially satisfy everyone involved. Each party, including the compromiser, is expected to relinquish something. In this instance, both medium assertiveness and cooperation are prominent (Mind Tools, 2008). This is an appropriate strategy to use when the cost of conflict is higher than achieving the team’s goals, when equally matched parties are at an impasse, or when a deadline needs to be met in a short amount of time (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
This style of conflict resolution is used when attempting to meet the needs of all people involved. In this instance, both cooperation and assertiveness are high, and the concerns are equally important (Mind Tools, 2008). This is an appropriate strategy to use when a variety of viewpoints need to be addressed, when there have been previous conflicts within the group, or when the situation is too important for a simple exchange of position. With the collaboration strategy, everyone wins; however, the technique does require the most time and effort in order to resolve the situation (DeJanasz, Dowd & Schneider, 2002).
Team Benefits and Challenges
As stated earlier conflict can be either a negative or positive experience for a team, depending on how the situation is processed and resolved. In many cases, effective conflict resolution skills can make the difference between positive and negative outcomes. Usually negative conflict will damage a team’s dynamics, which prevents the members from functioning as a group and achieving their combined goals. Conflict can be destructive when no decision has been reached and the problem still exists; when it diverts energy away from more important activities; when it destroys morale; and when it divides teams. In contrast, when conflict is resolved successfully, positive outcomes prevail. Successful conflict resolution not only solves the problem that has been brought to the surface, but it also benefits the team in some unexpected ways. Conflict can be constructive when people change and grow personally from the conflict; when a solution the problem is found; when it increases the involvement of the team, and when it builds cohesiveness among the team members (Capozzoli, 1995).
Conflict can be incredibly destructive to good teamwork. Differences between team members can quickly escalate causing the members to become uncooperative if not managed properly, eventually threatening the mission of the team. This is particularly true in cases where the wrong approaches to conflict resolution are applied (Mind Tools, 2008). To control these situations, it helps to take a positive approach to conflict resolution. Positive conflict resolution focuses on courteous and non-confrontational discussion, as well as on the issues instead of on the individuals. As long as team members listen carefully to one another and explore the facts, issues and possible solutions properly, conflict can often be resolved effectively.