Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Understanding and Managing Conflict in Teams

Conflict in your team or organisation can be a double-edged sword, impacting performance and relationships. Let’s delve into the differences between task and relationship conflicts and explore effective conflict management strategies.

Managing conflict in the workplace can be a challenging task, and understanding the nuances of different conflict types is crucial for effective leadership.

Conflict often arises when individuals or groups perceive mismatches in interests, beliefs, or values. It can revolve around two main aspects:

1. Work and Task-Related Issues: These conflicts stem from issues like resource allocation, procedures, politics, and differing interpretations of facts.

2. Relationship Issues: Personal preferences, political leanings, values, and interpersonal dynamics can lead to these types of conflicts.

Task conflict, on the one hand, emerges when team members disagree about the content of their tasks. This can include differences in perspectives, opinions, and ideas. Relationship conflict, on the other hand, revolves around interpersonal incompatibilities and often involves distrust, fear, anger, and frustration. While task conflicts relate to work, relationship conflicts are typically not work-related.

It’s essential to distinguish between these two types of conflict because they are interlinked. Task conflict can sometimes escalate into relationship conflict, but not all task conflicts lead to relationship conflicts.

Task conflict can have a positive impact on team performance when it arises from complex tasks with no standard procedures or solutions. This type of conflict can stimulate the development of new products, better decision-making, and improved problem-solving. Deep discussions and diverse opinions foster improvement in such scenarios.

Task-related conflict can also be beneficial as it helps in avoiding biased decision-making. It’s particularly useful when there is minimal relationship conflict, allowing for constructive controversy and open-minded discussions.

However, routine tasks do not benefit from task conflict in the same way. For instance, discussions about standardized procedures or machine operations are unlikely to lead to significant improvements.

Well-managed task conflict doesn’t harm the trust within a team, which is essential for maintaining healthy team dynamics. Relationship conflict, on the other hand, erodes trust, affecting overall team performance. It’s crucial to recognize the distinction between these two conflict types to harness the benefits of task conflict while effectively resolving relationship conflicts.

While a certain degree of task conflict can be beneficial, intensifying conflict leads to negative consequences. As conflict becomes more intense, cognitive load increases, information processing becomes impeded, and overall team performance suffers.

People typically respond to conflict in one of four ways, depending on their level of concern for themselves and others:

1. Forcing (Competing/Dominating): Imposing one’s will using threats, persuasion, or positional commitments.

2. Yielding (Accommodating/Obliging): Accepting others‘ will through concessions, unconditional promises, or offering help.

3. Avoiding: Adopting a passive stance, downplaying conflict issues, or ignoring them entirely.

4. Solving (Integrating/Collaborating): Seeking a win-win agreement through information exchange, insights, and trade-offs.

An individual’s conflict management style depends on their personality, the situation, and the overall conflict culture within the team or organisation. Different situations and types of conflicts may lead individuals to adopt varying conflict resolution styles.

Conflict, whether task or relationship-related, can have significant health implications. Stress and conflict can lead to reduced problem-solving capacity, decreased task focus, and hindered decision-making. They also result in negative emotions, increased adrenaline levels, heightened heart rate, and muscle tension. Prolonged stress affects the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illness. Managing conflict effectively can mitigate these health issues. 

Individuals can influence the level of conflict in the workplace based on their conflict resolution style and how they address conflict. Adaptability is key – conflict management strategies can vary depending on the situation and the individuals involved.

Conflict style preference can lead to less task and relationship conflict, affecting overall team dynamics. The stronger the inclination toward problem-solving and integration, the lower the experience of task and relationship conflict. In contrast, yielding or forcing can lead to heightened conflict levels.

In conclusion, managing conflict is an essential aspect of effective leadership. Understanding the differences between task and relationship conflicts and adopting appropriate conflict resolution strategies can lead to improved team performance and healthier work environments. Recognizing the importance of shared interests and needs is key to finding mutually beneficial solutions and preventing unnecessary conflicts.

(This article is based on a chapter in Better Work: A Leader’s Guide to Creating Happier, Healthier, and More Productive Workplaces.)

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​