How To Handle Task Conflict and Relationship Conflict as a Manager

Two heads are better than one is the basic assumption of teamwork. Teams benefit from combined experience, expertise, capabilities, and talent. However, the same individuals also possess differing opinions, strategies, and processes to achieve a common goal. This can lead to two types of conflict in the workplace: task conflict and relationship conflict.

Both types of workplace conflict are often avoided to prevent hurt feelings or tension, but studies have shown that conflict avoidance can exacerbate the toxicity that managers fear. When there is no tolerance for conflict, there is no room for team members to bring the problems they face to the table.

Although conflict is often viewed as taboo in the workplace, it’s often a necessary part of success. Out of clashes and conflicts come resolution, healthy debates, constructive criticism, and crucial feedback.

So before you rule with an iron fist to quell inner turmoil and shut down a conflict at its onset, consider the negative and positive effects of relationship and task conflict, how it will affect your work environment and team performance, and how to utilize proper conflict management for present and future scenarios.

By embracing the inevitability of task conflict and avoiding relationship conflict, you can emerge triumphant on the other end. Below, we’ll discuss how to differentiate between the two types of conflict and manage and resolve each kind correctly.

“The avoidance of workplace conflict often leads to the toxicity managers try to avoid.”

Why Task Conflict and Workplace Conflict are “Necessary Evils”

Two businessmen arguing with megaphones

If team members can’t discuss their comments, concerns, or problems outwardly, they become water cooler gossip instead. This, in turn, leads to extra toxicity and a lack of productivity that wouldn’t have existed had the conflict been dealt with upfront.

An American Psychological Association study found that conflict processes explain 13% of team performance and productivity outcome variance. That means that managers need to develop solutions for effective conflict management and resolution within their team.

To help managers embrace conflict, organizational psychologist Adam Grant suggests managers learn how to identify the type of conflict their team faces, including both relationship conflict and task conflict. While task conflict is necessary and productive in the workplace, relationship conflict is harmful and leads to resentment among team members.

But the emergent idea behind these conflicts is that they lead to team productivity, team effectiveness, and more cohesive unit moving forward.

What Is Task Conflict?

Task conflict involves disagreements about the problems, solutions, or decisions regarding concrete issues at work, such as resources, work assignments, interpretations of facts, policies, etc. Such disagreements about the tangible aspects of work are necessary for improved team performance. Furthermore, the effects of task conflict can actually lead to benefits and advantages within an organization.

Despite the negativity that may swirl around the concept, a moderate amount of task conflict has been shown to increase employees’ understanding of their work, improve decision-making quality, and elevate team innovation. Managers need to embrace task conflict rather than shy away from it, as well as build conflict-resolution skills.

Examples of Task Conflict

Knowing a few examples of task conflict can help you identify it more readily and be able to act as a mediator and moderator. Here are some examples to guide you:

  • Differing viewpoints about the allocation of capital or resources
  • Arguments about task delegation
  • Heated exchanges about job duties
  • Task performance issues
  • Misinterpretations about communication or texts that leads to conflict in virtual teams

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you some perspective moving forward.

How to Effectively Manage and Resolve Task Conflict

A manager mediating a task conflict or relationship conflict

Part of embracing task conflict also means effectively managing it. By doing so, the situation doesn’t get out of hand or become a toxic relationship conflict between teams or group members.

The best way to manage and resolve task conflict is through the use of problem-solution statements. Problem-solution statements force team members to define a problem and identify a possible solution, causing them to test their beliefs and assumptions and focus on the tangible facts of the situation. Forcing team members to get to the root of the problem keeps their discussion and disagreements task-focused instead of people-focused.

To set up a problem-solution statement system on your team, follow these steps:

  • Create an online chat designated to highlight problem-solution statements.
  • Define what a problem-solution statement means and how it should be constructed.
  • Remind your team members to bring their problems to the designated channel in the specified format.
  • Explain to the team that presenting their concerns in a problem-solution statement format keeps them focused on their work rather than personal assumptions.

What Is Relationship Conflict?

Relationship conflict comes from differences in personality, interaction style, taste, ways of thinking, and differences of opinion. In a business environment, people who would not interact together usually are thrown together to work on a team where they must get along. It seems only natural that team members will always see eye to eye when you think about it.

The Correlation Between Task and Relationship Conflict

Studies have shown that task conflict often turns into relationship conflict because of the differences in how people interact, leading to misattributions of team members’ intentions.

For example, when a dominant (D) personality interacts with a steady and stable (S) personality per the DISC assessment, the S personality may interpret the D’s abrupt and quick nature as insulting or quick to judge. This can lead to a team member who disagrees with a strategic suggestion (a task conflict) by another team member being misunderstood as criticism or a personal attack.

Use the Ladder of Inference to Identify the Type of Conflict and Resolve It

Grant suggests that the best way to identify the conflict you’re facing is to use the ladder of inference.

The ladder of inference can be defined as a common mental pathway of increasing assumptions that leads to misguided beliefs. In other words, humans make conclusions based on their assumptions, leading to biased beliefs and misguided judgments.

An Example of Using the Ladder of Inference

In terms of conflict, team members can take what is a simple task disagreement and make inaccurate inferences about the interaction regarding the disagreement.

The best way to understand how this works is to analyze an example of conflict. Let’s say Colin presents a new project to the team and asks the group to decide whether or not they should move forward with it. Colin notices that everyone except Jonah seems engaged in the presentation.

Jonah says that the team shouldn’t make any final decisions until the final data comes in at the end of the presentation. As a result, Colin feels defensive that Jonah is insulting his competency and believes that Jonah is mean-spirited.

In reality, Jonah is just data-oriented and likes to have all of the information before moving forward with a decision. What started as a task conflict—whether or not to move forward with a project—quickly became a relationship conflict.

Using the ladder of inference, we can test our assumptions and see what problem is being faced. For example, if Colin and Jonah were to get together and discuss their disagreements, they would realize that their assumptions lead to a relationship conflict and that they are simply having a dispute based on a task.

If we share our assumptions and observations with others and allow them to do the same, we can understand where the other person is coming from and where the conflict is coming from.

How to Effectively Manage and Resolve Relationship Conflict

A manager moderating a conflict

Mediation and collaboration are the best tools to resolve relationship conflict to be refocused on the task instead of personal values and differences.

Act as a Mediator Before the Situation Becomes Toxic

Relationship conflicts benefit from managers stepping in as mediators. With a mediator involved, it is much easier to focus on the problem instead of on personal disagreements. Managers can help employees get to the root of the problem, reminding them that they are against the problem, not each other.

As a manager mediates a conflict discussion, they must remain neutral and calm as this helps employees stay calm. When everyone can present their side of the problem calmly and in a respected space, it is much easier to see that the conflict is not about personal differences but a disagreement about a task.

Collaborate on a Solution

One of the best ways to ensure that team members come away with a positive experience after a conflict is to help them collaborate on the solution.

Bring the teammates together and engage them in a collaborative problem-solving process where they brainstorm solutions to their problems. Monitor the discussion to ensure that each team member is contributing and each team member is heard.

Use active listening to ensure each party feels heard by repeating what you listen to confirm understanding and ask questions to help them get to the root of the problem and find an effective solution. Do your best to help the team members come to the solution independently rather than you providing them with a solution.

When team members develop solutions together rather than having an outcome imposed on them, they’re more likely to implement their agreement and work together in the future.

You will not always have to be involved in the resolution of relationship conflicts. After a few collaborative mediation sessions, team members will understand how to interact with one another effectively and implement a conflict resolution process independently.

Task Conflict, Relationship Conflict, and the Role of Management

Embracing conflict as a part of your managerial duties will make you more apt to deal with difficult situations—and more importantly—inject a fresh and positive perspective into the organizational behavior of your company.

Through mediating, collaborating, and using your own methodologies, you can create a more effective management team—one with more solutions than questions.

👉 Want to become a Unicorn Leader? Check out my leadership training for managers page to learn more.

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