Two Types of Workplace Conflict and How to Deal with Them
Two heads are better than one is the basic assumption of teamwork.
Teams benefit from combined experience, expertise, and capabilities. But it also means that they face differing opinions, strategies, and processes to approach a task, leading to conflict.
Conflict is often viewed as taboo, especially in the workplace
Workplace conflict is avoided to prevent hurt feelings or tension, but Patrick Lencioni found that conflict avoidance leads to the toxicity managers fear.
When there is no room for conflict, there is no room for team members to bring the problems they face to the table.
“The avoidance of workplace conflict often leads to the toxicity managers try to avoid.”
If team members can’t bring up their comments, concerns, or problems, they become watercooler gossip instead, which is much more toxic and unproductive than if the conflict had been dealt with upfront.
DeChurch & co. 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, Adam Grant suggests managers must learn how to identify the type of conflict their team faces.
In the workplace, we often come across two fundamental types of conflict:
- Task Conflict
- Relationship Conflict
While task conflict is necessary and productive in the workplace, relationship conflict is harmful and leads to resentment and toxicity among team members.
This article will help you learn how to engage your team in task conflict and prevent relationship conflict.
We will discuss how to differentiate between the two types of conflict and manage and resolve each kind correctly.
Table of Contents:
1. Relationship Conflict
Relationship conflict comes from differences in personality, interaction style, taste, ways of thinking, etc.
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.
Guenter & co. 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 D personality interacts with an S personality, 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.
2. Task Conflict
The first rule of better conflict management is changing your perspective on conflict.
Watch my video below to learn the seven principles behind improved conflict management on remote teams. 👇
Some conflict is necessary and healthy for team productivity and innovation, such as task conflict.
Task conflict involves disagreements about the problems, solutions, or decisions regarding concrete issues at works such as resources, work assignments, interpretations of facts, policies, etc.
Such disagreements about the tangible aspects of work are necessary for improved team performance.
According to Guenter & co., 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 start embracing task conflict rather than shying away from it.
Learn How to Identify the Type of Conflict You're Dealing With
Adam Grant suggests that the best way to identify the conflict you’re facing is to use the ladder of inference.
Chris Argyris’s ladder of inference is 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.
In terms of conflict, team members can take what is a simple task disagreement and make inaccurate inferences about the interaction regarding the disagreement.
For example, 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 last data comes in at the end of the presentation. 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-based conflict because of the ladder of inference.
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
Relationship conflict is best handled through mediation and collaboration to be refocused on the task instead of personal values and differences.
1. Act as a mediator to ensure task conflict doesn’t become 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 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.
2. Help team members 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.
How to Effectively Manage and Resolve Task Conflict
Part of embracing task conflict also means effectively managing it so that it does get out of hand and become a toxic relationship conflict.
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, create an online chat designated to highlighting problem-solution statements.
Define what a problem-solution statement means and how it should be constructed, and 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.
After reading this article, you now understand the two most common types of conflict you will face in the workplace, as well as effective strategies on how to deal with them.