As every manager knows, a cohesive and smooth-functioning team is crucial to the success of any task or project. Yet, whether they collaborate through technology or work together in an actual office, team members are bound to have different opinions, ideas, work styles and perspectives. Those differences often give rise to conflict. Sometimes, conflict can be creative, an energizing force that leads to innovation. However, when conflict is not productive and not addressed, it can derail teamwork, leading to declines in morale and productivity, misunderstandings, and animosity. At its worst, conflict can become toxic.
To get a handle on conflict before it escalates and does harm to their teams, managers must first know what type of conflict they’re dealing with. There are two basic types of conflict: task- (or process) related and relational. Task-related conflict typically occurs in complex projects where work between team members is interdependent and reciprocal, such as when one person’s ability to begin their task depends on another person’s task first being completed. If left unchecked, this common type of conflict can lead to the second, and potentially more damaging, type. For example, clashing views on how best to execute a task might feed into cultural stereotypes and fuel heated arguments between team members.
Learning how to de-escalate conflict is essential to keep a team on track and work proceeding. Here are five steps for effectively managing task-related conflict:
Step 1: Identification First, identify the source of the conflict. Ask the opposing team members to explain their side, clearly and calmly. Have each person involved write a simple statement of what the issue is, either on a whiteboard during a meeting or by posting on a shared site.
Step 2: Response Second, allow each person involved to respond to the issue and the other side’s position. For virtual and hybrid teams, consider using Chat, Word Comments, or the Word Tracking function. With on-site teams, invite opposing team members to engage in a discussion. Set firm boundaries to ensure respectful communication, with zero-tolerance for name-calling or derisive comments.
Step 3: Resolution Third, analyze all the facts of the situation. Using a systematic decision-making process, work towards a solution that’s acceptable and do-able for all team members.
Step 4: Enactment Fourth, put the agreed upon solution into practice and monitor progress. This step is where any necessary adjustments can be made.
Step 5: Evaluation Fifth, evaluate how well the solution worked and whether it’s workable on a long-term basis. Note any changes needed to improve the process moving forward.
Effectively managing task-related conflict minimizes the incidence of relational conflict in the workplace—though it can still creep in. Virtual and hybrid teams can be more vulnerable to relational conflict. Relying on technology as the primary or only means of communication can create difficulties in establishing a shared context, building rapport, and navigating cultural differences. Here are a few tips for avoiding relational conflict in the workplace:
Increase awareness of symptoms. Ignoring a team member’s snide aside or casual use of a demeaning label opens the door to a harmful pattern. Simply commenting on less-than-optimal behaviors immediately sends a clear message about what will not be tolerated.
Set ground rules for conduct. For example, if email responses are expected within 24 hours, ensure this is enforced. In addition to reducing conflict, this helps to maintain consistency, workflow and productivity.
Place a priority on building trust. While leaders establish the culture and set an example, building trust is a team-wide effort. Make sure every team member knows that they’re responsible for building trust and, in turn, managing conflict before it escalates.
Conflict in the workplace happens—it’s natural when people with differences work together. But conflict doesn’t have to deter teamwork and impact results. By keeping AMA’s five-step process and expert tips in mind, conflict is highly manageable and easy to monitor and minimize.
This article first appeared on amanet.org and adapted for CMC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.