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, which can lead 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 the avoidance of conflict 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 how to manage and resolve each kind properly.
Table of Contents:
1. Relationship Conflict
Relationship conflict comes from differences in personality, interaction style, matters of taste, ways of thinking, etc.
In a business environment, people who would not interact together normally are thrown together to work on a team where they must get along. When you think about it this it seems only natural that team members will always see eye to eye.
Guenter & co. have shown that task conflict often turns into relationship conflict because of the differences in how people interact which leads 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 simply disagrees with a strategic suggestion (a task conflict) by another team member to be 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 that 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 often leads to misguided beliefs.
In other words, humans make conclsuions based on the assumptions they hold which can lead bias beliefs and misugided judgements.
In terms of conflict, team members can take wha is a simple task disagreement and make innaccurate inferences about the interaction regarding the disagreement.
For example, let’s say Colin is presents a new project to the team and asks the team to make a decision as to whether or not they should move forward with it. Colin notices that everyone except Jonhah seems engaged in the presentation.
At the end of the presentation Jonah speaks up and says that the team shouldn’t make any final decisions until the final data comes in. Colin feels defensivinve 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 out 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.
By using the ladder of inference we can test our assumptions and see what problem is really being faced.
For example if Colin and Jonah were to get together and discuss the disagreements they had they would realize that it was their assumptions that lead to a relationship conflict and that really they are simply having a disagreement based on a task.
If we share our assumptions and obeservations with others and allow them to do the same we can understand where the other person is coming from and also where the conflict is coming from.
How to Effectively Manage and Resolve Relationship Conflict
Relationship conflict is best handled through mediation and collaboration so that it can 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.
When a mediator is involved it is much easier to keep the focus of discussion on the problem instead of personal disagreements.
Managers can help employees get to the root of the problem reminding them that it is them against the problem, not each other.
As a manager mediates a conflict discussion they must remain neutral and calm at all times as this helps employees remain calm as well.
When everyone is able to 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 and is actually 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 back what you hear 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 on their own 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 effectively intearct with one another and be able to implement a conflict resolution process on their own.
How to Effectively Manage and Resolve Task Conflict
Part of embracing task conflict also means being able to effectively manage 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 problem.
Forcing team members to get to the root of the problem keeps their discussion and disagreements task-focused instead of people-focused.
To setup a problem-solution statemen 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 the task and 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.