Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Managing Conflict in the Workplace

How comfortable do you feel with managing conflict in your organisation and team? What’s the difference between task and relationship conflict, and how can they impact your team performance and overall company?

How do you approach conflict?

I remember a time during my Ph.D. when I observed my boss go fiercely head to head with another lab manager during a meeting. My personal tendency is to avoid conflict at all costs, and resolving conflict in the workplace was a very new topic for me. To say I felt uncomfortable during the meeting is an understatement! Later, when I saw them chatting as if nothing had ever happened, I was even more confused. And when I asked my boss about it, he told me that one thing he really appreciated about his peer is that he could have tough discussions with her about projects and work. But ultimately, they respected and liked each other. And that’s how all was well again as soon as the meeting was over.

What I didn’t know back then is that they’d figured out an approach to disputes, differing opinions, and decision-making that meant that task conflict wouldn’t escalate into a relationship conflict

So what about you? Are you more like me – someone who tries to find agreement and alignment with others as quickly as possible to avoid feeling uncomfortable? Or are you more like my old boss – someone who’s willing to get temporarily uncomfortable if it helps the cause? How much conflict do you experience in your team? And how do you currently navigate it?

Task conflict vs relationship conflict

According to De Dreu et al (2004), conflict happens when individuals or a group perceive a mismatch between their and others’ interests, beliefs, or values. Conflict often arises around:

  • Work and task-related issues. Examples could be the distribution of resources, procedures, politics, and judgement and interpretation of facts.
  • Relationship issues, such as personal taste, political preferences, values, interpersonal style, etc.

In their paper, Lehmann-Willenbrock et al, 2011 state that “Task conflict occurs when team members disagree about the content of their tasks. This may include differences in perspectives, opinions, and ideas. Relationship conflict concerns interpersonal incompatibilities between team members and typically involves distrust, fear, anger, frustration, and other negative emotions (e.g., Jehn & Mannix, 2001, Pelled,1996). As opposed to the content of task conflict, the social disagreements inherent in relationship conflict are not work-related.“ (See Tindale et al., 2005).

Understanding the impact of task conflict vs relationship conflict

So there’s a difference between task conflict and relationship conflict, but the two types aren’t independent of one another. While this isn’t a given, task conflict can lead to relationship conflict. But there are also situations in which a team may benefit from task conflict. 

For example, task conflict can lead to better team performance when the dispute arises as a consequence of complex tasks that have no standard procedures and solutions. This could lead to positive outcomes, such as developing new products or making better decisions. And the reason for this is that by thinking about a topic in greater depth and exploring different ideas and opinions, we may find improvements.

Routine tasks, on the other hand, don’t benefit from task conflict in the same way. For example, think about operating a machine or following a standard analytical method in the lab. Any discussion about it (i.e. task conflict) is quickly forgotten when you go back to doing the steps that have been laid out.

Overall, well-managed task conflict is not detrimental to the trust existing in a team. But relationship conflict generates mistrust, which, in turn, affects performance. This proves that knowing the difference between task and relationship conflict is important to leverage task conflict and resolve relationship conflict effectively.

Here’s how you can distinguish the two.

Task conflictRelationships conflict
Disagreements and differing opinions about how work should be done. Conflicts about ideas in your team. Conflicts about the work.Friction between members of your team. Obvious personality conflicts. Tension between team members.

It’s worth adding a quick note of caution though. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you should purposely fan existing task conflict because it improves team performance. “Whereas a little conflict may be beneficial, such positive effects quickly break down as conflict becomes more intense, cognitive load increases, information processing is impeded, and team performance suffers.” (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003)

The four ways people respond to conflict 

In this paper, De Dreu et al (2004) state that people may respond to conflict in four different ways. And these depend on how high or low their concern for themselves and others is.

Let’s look at each of the four quadrants in more detail.

  • Force is about imposing one’s will on others using threats, bluffs, persuasive arguments, or positional commitments.
  • Yield is about accepting and incorporating other people’s will through unilateral concessions, unconditional promises, or offering help.
  • Avoid relates to using a passive stance, reducing or downplaying the importance of the conflict issues, and suppressing any thinking about others. 
  • And solve is all about reaching an agreement to achieve a win-win situation. This happens through the exchange of information about priorities and preferences, showing insights, and making trade-offs.

The quadrant we end up in depends on:

  • Our personality. This includes our social value orientation, our power motivation, or our need for affiliation.
  • The situation itself. This can be impacted by incentives, time pressure, level of aspiration, or power preponderance, for example.

How we perceive conflict is also influenced by the overall conflict culture in our team or organisation. Where conflict is perceived as negative and annoying, we’ll approach it with a passive stance. Whereas if conflict is seen as something exciting that provides opportunities, we’ll be more open to managing it via problem-solving and open-minded debates.

Is conflict always bad?

As stated earlier, not all conflict is bad. Having some task-related conflict is better than having no conflict at all. This is because some form of conflict allows us to avoid biased and defective group decision-making. Task conflict can be particularly positive when there’s no relationship conflict as that tends to mean it’s easier to embrace constructive controversy and to stay open-minded.

It’s also worth noting that conflict is both a trigger for and a consequence of bad health, and the way conflict is managed can further influence this relationship.

Conflict as a result of stress and bad health

When we’re stressed or don’t feel well, our problem-solving capacity, task focus, and ability to make good and thorough decisions are affected. We tend to get into a negative mood and withdraw from others. This, in turn, reduces our chances of getting support. Distancing ourselves in this way might lead to less constructive ways of dealing with conflict (such as contending or avoiding), which may intensify it. Likewise, if we’re feeling bad, we’re no fun to be around, and this could be a trigger for conflict with colleagues because we’re irritable or not performing at our best.

Conflict as a cause of stress and bad health

Conflict often goes hand in hand with negative emotions, threatened self-esteem, and heightened cognitive effort. These can lead to a whole host of reactions in our body, such as rising adrenaline levels and heartbeat and increased muscle tension. This isn’t good news for our health because both short- and long-term stress negatively impacts the immune system, thus making us more susceptible to illness. So if there’s constant conflict at work, we end up more and more stressed.

And this, in turn, impacts our job satisfaction and organisational commitment. These factors could then lead to absenteeism, withdrawal (including extremes such as sabotage and theft), staff turnover, and of course, burnout and illnesses. It’s fair to say this can then have a huge ripple effect on the whole team. 

The impact of managing conflict at work

How we manage conflict also plays an important role in our stress levels and health. We could argue that strategies where we lack control (such as when we’re not actively involved in solving conflict, such as avoiding and yielding) take a bigger toll on our well-being. This is because we feel negatively impacted by those stressors, as opposed to having an active conflict resolution strategy. Problem-solving, on the other hand, could lead to stronger feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy and reduced tension in the future. 

But that doesn’t mean we are only affected by conflict in a passive way. On the contrary, depending on our style and how we choose to address it, we can influence how much conflict we experience in the workplace. And this can have a direct impact on our own experience of stress (Friedmann et al, 2000).

It’s also worth noting that the term style here might imply that the way we react to conflict is a fixed state. If that were the case, we’d have little room to maneuvre. So it’s better to think of it as strategies and intentions that can be modified depending on what the situation requires. So you may approach conflict differently with your team members compared to how you act with someone from senior management. In other words, the type of conflict and who you’re in conflict with will influence your style

Recognising your conflict style

The conflict style you choose can have long-lasting implications for the organisation, as conflict will always arise in several situations at work. For example, you may experience conflict when:

  • Negotiating and resolving disputes around tasks.
  • Actively generating and resolving disputes that are integral to strategic decision-making. 
  • Managing the day-to-day operations of your team and their differences in priorities and preferences.

In the words of Friedmann et al (2000), “depending on how people approach conflict, they can amplify or dampen naturally-emerging disputes, and make the environment one that is supportive or alienating for themselves.” This means that the stronger your tendency to resolve conflict through integration and problem-solving is, the lower your experience of task conflict at work will be. And because of that, you’ll also experience a lower level of relationship conflict. 

Also, the stronger your tendency is to solve conflict through obliging, the lower your level of relationship conflict will be. While, understandably, the stronger your tendency to resolve conflict through dominating or forcing is, the higher your experience of task conflict and relationship conflict will be.

Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that a preference towards avoidance isn’t a direct guarantee of less conflict. Day in and day out, you experience less task or relationship conflict because you duck away. But this isn’t necessarily good if you still feel stressed as a result of your weakened ability to assert your own ideas and standpoints.

Positions vs interest when it comes to conflict resolution

When it comes to interests and positions, the second principle in the book Getting to yes explains that conflict doesn’t come from what people want – it comes from why they want it. And within that, that’s where you find the solution. For a successful resolution, make sure you understand your and your counterpart’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears before arguing about what the decision or solution should be. In other words, find the shared interests, and you’ll find a solution that works for both of you. 

This famous story of the two sisters both fighting for the same orange perfectly illustrates the idea of positions vs interests. The back and forth between them went on for so long that the mother intervened by cutting the orange in half and handed one half each to the sisters. Both of them were unhappy though. 

Why? Because the mother acted upon the position that both sisters wanted the orange. She didn’t stop to ask questions to identify the reason why they wanted it though. Had she asked, she would have found out that one wanted to squeeze it out to drink the juice, and the other one was after the peel for baking. This proves that she could have found a more satisfactory solution that would have benefited both sisters.

Practical steps to managing conflict in your team

With all this in mind, what can you do as a leader to manage conflict in your team? Here are a few practical steps you can take.

1. Check your own attitude towards conflict 

According to Hon & Chan 2013, work-related conflict and stress are not always necessarily bad for organisational outcomes. Instead, task-related conflict and the resulting stress may improve employees’ sense of accomplishment when the task is complete. However, by the same token, relationship-based conflict and stress generally lead to negative outcomes for the employee and organisation.

So it’s important to recognise that workplace conflict is inherent to organisations and is, to a large extent, an autonomous process that is difficult to channel and control. As a leader, keep a mindful eye on this. Your role is to observe whether a conflict (task vs. relationship) develops into something productive with positive consequences for the individuals and the organisation. And on top of that, you also want to try and understand the source and type of conflict you witness.

Workplace conflict is not only unavoidable but can also be desirable. This is particularly true when the dispute is around task completion. So invest in helping the team diagnose the type of conflict that emerges and teach team members how to manage it. 

When relationship conflicts arises, you’ll need to introduce strategies to mitigate or eliminate them. But when task conflicts emerge, employee performance may benefit if the conflict is managed constructively. Let’s remember that teams also need to have high levels of openness, psychological safety, and trust with each other. So strategies that foster this condition are likely to help the team benefit from task-related disputes.

2. Select the right conflict style

An integrative and collaborative style is not always necessary or best. Sometimes decisions may need to be made from the top-down, especially if there’s too little time to involve the team. 

However, according to Friedmann et al (2000) a more inclusive style is recommended for “complex problems with the potential for joint gain.” This is because understanding each other’s interests (instead of just our positions) makes it more likely to find win-win solutions. Using this style more often means that more disputes are resolved, and the decisions and deals that are made help to preserve or create resources and decrease the likelihood of future disputes. All this means that you start to experience less persistent conflict at work.

This is even more important when the stakes are higher, and it’s easier to mistake task conflict for relationship conflict. When the parties involved may interpret comments as personal attacks or criticism and then counter with their own, the situation can easily spiral out of control.

The impact of using a collaborative style in relationship conflict 

All the above suggestions relate to task conflict. But contrary to what you (and many scientists) may assume, a 2001 study by De Dreu and van Vianen (2001) found that integrating or collaborative conflict style in relationship conflicts was associated with lower team performance. This shows, once again, that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. And while this book gives many suggestions, as a leader, you always need to use your brain and your heart (and often your gut) to determine the best course of action.

So why might a collaborative style to relationship conflict be detrimental to team performance? Researchers don’t have a definitive answer to this. But one could speculate that as humans we learn over the course of our lives that relationship conflicts are hard to solve. They also tend to distract us from the work that needs to be done, so we tend to think that avoiding it and not addressing it is a better course of action.

Short-term impact vs long-term impact 

In a conclusion from the results of their study, De Dreu and van Vianen (2001) suggest that relationship conflict (as opposed to task conflict) is best met with an avoidant style when wanting to preserve team performance. But again, feel free to assess your own situation because studies such as this often only look at the short-term effects (i.e. a few weeks or months) rather than the long term.

This is also why the authors suggest that more research is needed to follow teams for a longer period of time. I personally can think of a few examples at work where I avoided resolving relationship conflicts with people I have little contact with. But if conflict impacted my relationship with my boss or colleagues in my team (i.e. people I work with on a daily basis), I’d probably want to resolve it or leave the team. And this is a valid point as researchers speculate that avoidance helps team effectiveness in the short term, but it might lead to the situation escalating a few months later. And by the same token, “ignoring and waiting it out” may also mean that the conflict is diluted over time.

3. Help your team manage their work relationships proactively

Helping your team to manage their work relationships proactively helps you avoid unnecessary conflict. Sometimes the organisational context is abundant with opportunities for conflict. These may arise from having dual reporting lines, restructures, newcomers and leavers, etc.

In times when the potential for conflict (especially regarding roles and tasks) is low, researchers suggest a less active approach to cope with conflict so you improve your overall experience of work. Put in simpler terms, don’t go looking for drama (Tidd & Friedman, 2002). Other times may call for a more active approach to dealing with conflict (or for trying to reduce the chances where conflict may arise).

Here are some strategies you could use:

  • Regularly clarify roles and responsibilities of team members. Are tasks clear? Do we know how to work and communicate with one another? For example, even if the project team stays the same, there can be subtle shifts depending on the phase that the project is in, and it might be worth renegotiating roles. 
  • Manage expectations. Do you know what others expect of you? Have you clearly communicated what you expect of them? Again, even in long-standing relationships, I recommend you have regular checkpoints, especially when you start working with someone new. 
  • Practise perspective and get to know the personal styles and values of your co-workers. Where possible, even facilitate this within the team. We are all wired differently and have different preferences as to how to get work done. These differences can easily lead to frustration with one another, so understanding personal styles is definitely time well invested.

So what will you do to help your team better deal with workplace conflict? 

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