Managing Team Conflict

The final characteristic of team process is conflict. Of all the skills required for effective team management, none is more important  than handling the conflicts that inevitably arise among members. Conflict can arise among members within a team or between one team and another. Conflict refers to antagonistic interaction in which one party attempts to block the intentions or goals of another.75 Competition,  which is rivalry among individuals or  teams, can have   a  healthy impact because  it  energizes people toward higher performance.76

Whenever people work together in teams, some conflict is inevitable. Bringing conflicts out into the open and effectively  resolving them is one of the team leader’s most challenging jobs. For example, studies of virtual teams indicate that how they handle internal conflicts is critical to their success, yet conflict within virtual teams tends to occur more frequently and take longer to resolve because people are separated by space, time, and cultural differ- ences. Moreover, people in virtual teams tend to engage in more inconsiderate behaviors such as name-calling or insults than do people who work face-to-face.77


Some conflict can actually be beneficial  to teams.78  A healthy level of conflict helps to prevent groupthink, in which people are so committed  to a cohesive team that they are reluctant to express contrary  opinions.  Author and scholar Jerry Harvey  tells a story of how members of his extended family in Texas decided to drive 40 miles to Abilene on a hot day when the car’s air conditioning didn’t work. Everyone was miserable. Later, each person admitted they hadn’t wanted to go but went along to please the others. Harvey used the term Abilene paradox to describe this tendency to go along with others for the sake of avoiding conflict.79  Similarly, when people in work teams go along simply for the sake of harmony, problems typically  result. Thus, a degree  of conflict leads to better decision making because multiple viewpoints  are expressed. Among top management teams, for example, low levels of conflict have been found to be associated with poor decision making.80

However, conflict  that is too strong, that is focused on personal rather than work issues, or that is not managed  appropriately  can be  damaging  to the team’s  morale and productivity.

Too much conflict can be destructive, tear relationships  apart, and interfere  with the healthy exchange of ideas and information.81   Team leaders have to find the right balance between conflict and cooperation, as illustrated in Exhibit 14.8. Too little conflict can de- crease team  performance  because the team doesn’t benefit from a mix of opinions and ideas—even disagreements—that might lead to better solutions or prevent the team from making mistakes. At the other end of the spectrum, too much conflict outweighs the team’s cooperative efforts and leads to a decrease in employee satisfaction and commitment, hurt- ing team performance. A moderate amount of conflict  that is managed appropriately typi- cally results in the highest levels of team performance.


Several factors  can cause people  to engage  in conflict, as described   in the following sections.82

Scarce Resources. Resources include money, information,  and supplies. When- ever individuals  or teams must compete for scarce or declining resources, conflict is almost inevitable. The introduction of fast-cycle  teams,  as described  earlier,  for example, fre- quently leads to conflict because it creates a new competition for resources.83 Some projects may be delayed because managers reallocate  resources to fast-cycle projects, potentially creating conflicts.

Communication Breakdown. Poor communication results in misperceptions and misunderstandings of other people and teams. In some cases, information is intention- ally withheld, which can jeopardize  trust among teams and cause long-lasting conflict. Faulty communication  can occur in any team, but virtual and global teams are particularly prone to communication  breakdowns. For one thing, the lack of nonverbal  cues, as de- scribed in the previous  chapter,  leads to more misunderstandings among virtual team members. In addition, trust issues are a major  source of conflict in virtual teams because members may fear that they are being left out of important communication interactions.84

Personality Clashes. A personality clash occurs when people simply do not get along or do not see eye-to-eye on any issue. Personality  clashes are caused by basic differ- ences in personality,  values, and attitudes.  In one study, personality conflicts were the No. 1 reported  cause preventing  front-line management  teams from working together effec- tively.85 Some personality differences can be overcome. However, severe personality clashes are difficult to resolve. Often, it is a good idea to simply separate the parties so that they need not interact with one another.

Goal Differences. Conflict often  occurs simply  because people are pursuing con- flicting goals. Goal differences are natural in organizations. Individual salespeople’s targets may put them in conflict with one another or with the sales manager. Moreover, the sales department’s goals might conflict with those of manufacturing.  When team members don’t have a clear understanding  of and commitment to the team goal and how their individual tasks contribute,  they may be pursuing their own agendas, which  can lead to conflicts.


Teams  as well as individuals  develop specific styles for dealing with conflict, based on the desire to satisfy their  own concern versus the other party’s concern. A model that describes five styles of handling conflict is shown in Exhibit 14.9. The two major dimensions are the extent to which an individual is assertive versus cooperative in his or her approach to conflict.

Effective  team members vary their style of handling conflict to fit a specific  situation. Each of these five styles is appropriate in certain cases.86

  1. The competing style reflects assertiveness to get one’s own way, and should be used when quick, decisive action is vital on important issues or unpopular  actions, such as during emergencies or urgent cost cutting.
  2. The avoiding style reflects  neither assertiveness nor cooperativeness. It is appropriate when an issue is trivial, when there is no chance of winning, when a delay to gather more information is needed, or when a disruption  would be costly.
  3. The compromising style reflects  a moderate amount of both  assertiveness and cooperative- ness. It is appropriate when the goals on both sides are equally important, when oppo- nents have equal power and both sides want to split the difference, or when people need to arrive at temporary or expedient solutions under time pressure.
  4. The accommodating style reflects a high degree of cooperativeness, which works best when people realize that they are wrong,  when an issue is more important to others than to oneself, when building  social credits for use in later discussions, and when maintain- ing harmony  is especially important.

  1. The collaborating style reflects both a high degree of assertiveness and cooperativeness. The collaborating  style enables both parties to win, although it may require substantial bargaining and negotiation. The collaborating style is important  when both sets of con- cerns are too important to be compromised, when insights from different  people need to be merged into an overall solution, and when the commitment of both sides is needed for a consensus.

These various styles of handling  conflict  are especially effective when an individual dis- agrees with others. But what does a manager  or team leader do when  a conflict erupts among others within a team  or among teams for which the manager is responsible? Re- search suggests that several techniques   can be used as strategies  for resolving conflicts among people or departments. These techniques might also be used when conflict  is for- malized, such as between  a union and management.

Superordinate Goals. The larger objective that cannot be attained by a single party is identified as a superordinate goal.87  It is similar to the concept of vision. A pow- erful vision often compels people to overcome conflicts and cooperate for the greater good. Similarly,  a superordinate  goal requires the cooperation of conflicting  team members for achievement. People must pull together. To the extent that employees can be focused on team or organization  goals, the conflict will decrease because they see the big picture and realize they must work together to achieve it.

Mediation. Using  a third party to settle a dispute is referred to as mediation. A me- diator could be a supervisor, a higher-level manager, an outside consultant, or someone from the human resource department.  The mediator  can discuss the conflict with each party and work toward a solution.  If a solution  satisfactory to both sides cannot be reached, the parties might be willing to turn the conflict over to the mediator and abide by his or her solution.


One distinctive type of conflict manage- ment is negotiation,  whereby people engage in give-and-take  discussions and consider various alternatives to reach  a joint decision that is acceptable to both parties. Conflicting parties may embark upon negotiation from different perspec- tives and with different intentions, re- flecting either an integrative approach or a distributive  approach.

Integrative  negotiation is based on a win-win assumption, in that all par- ties want to come up with a creative solu- tion that can benefit both sides of the conflict. Rather than viewing the conflict as  a  win-lose situation, people look at the issues from multiple angles, consider trade-offs, and try to “expand the pie” rather than divide it.  With   integra- tive negotiation,  conflicts are managed through cooperation  and compromise, which fosters trust and positive long-term relationships. Distributive negotiation, on the other hand, assumes the “size of the pie” is fixed, and each party attempts to get as much  of it as they can. One side wants to win, which  means the other side must lose. With this win-lose approach, distributive negotia- tion is competitive and adversarial rather than collaborative and does not typically lead to positive long-term relationships.88

In recent years, books, software, newsletters, and training  seminars on negotiating  have proliferated. Most emphasize the value of integrative negotiation for today’s collaborative business environment. That is, the key to effectiveness is to see negotiation not as a zero- sum game but as a process for reaching a creative solution  that benefits everyone.89

Rules for Reaching a Win-Win Solution. Achieving  a win-win solution through integrative negotiation is based on four key strategies:90

  1. Separate the people from the problem. For successful integrative negotiation, people stay focused on the problem and the source of conflict rather than attacking or attempting to discredit each other.
  2. Focus on interests, not current demands. Demands are what each person wants from the negotiation, whereas interests are why they want them. Consider two sisters arguing over the last orange in the fruit bowl. Each insisted she should get the orange and refused to give up (demands). Then, the girls’ aunt walks in and asks each of them why they want the orange (interests). As it turned out, one wanted to eat it and the other wanted the peel to use for a class project. By focusing on the interests, the sisters arrived at a solution that got each person what she wanted.91  Demands create yes-or-no  obstacles to effective negotiation. Interests present problems that can be solved creatively.
  3. Generate many alternatives for mutual gain. Both parties in an integrative negotiation come up with a variety of options for solving the problem  and engage in give-and-take discussions about which  alternatives can get each side what it wants.
  4. Insist that results be based on objective standards. Each party in a negotiation has its own interests and would naturally like to maximize its outcomes. Successful negotiation requires focusing on objective criteria and maintaining standards of fairness rather than using subjective judgments about the best solution.

In  the Bargaining Zone. The bargaining zone is the zone between one party’s minimum reservation point (the point beyond which the party is willing to ac- cept a deal) and the other party’s maximum reservation point. Exhibit 14.10 illustrates the bargaining zone for two students negotiating for the purchase of a used textbook.

Samantha wants to buy a used Health Standards textbook.  She would  like to get one for $60 but is willing to pay up to $85. Bailey has advertised a used book for sale at $90. He knows he can sell it back to the bookstore for $65, so he won’t go lower than that price. As shown in the exhibit, the bargaining  zone is the range between $65 (the lowest Bailey will accept) and $85 (the highest Samantha is willing to pay). It is a positive bar- gaining  zone because the reservation  points  overlap by a $20 amount, allowing room for negotiation.92

A negative bargaining  zone occurs when the ranges do not overlap, for instance, if Bailey would not accept less than $65 and Samantha would go no higher than $60. This situation leaves no room  for negotiation, and the parties have to fall back on their best alternative to a negotiated  agreement, or BATNA. Prior to negotiation, each party decides what it will do if a mutual agreement cannot  be reached. In the example of Samantha and Bailey, Samantha’s BATNA  might be to check out a copy of the textbook from the library and share a text with a classmate. Bailey’s BATNA might be to wait for another buyer who will pay a higher price or sell the book to the bookstore for $65.

A key aspect of any negotiation is for each party to determine its BATNA and to ascer- tain the other party’s reservation point. With a positive bargaining  zone, successful negoti- ation is possible if both parties follow the strategies for effective integrative negotiation.

Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.

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