Encouraging Productive Conflict

The ability of the team to distinguish between a task conflict and a relationship conflict is important for long term cohesion and success on tasks. Task-related conflicts and disagreements come up in all teams. When the conflict arises in the middle of discussing a fairly complex business problem, it is actually considered good for the team process. The conflicting viewpoints are an opportunity to evaluate a problem from different perspectives and then take a decision based on a thorough assessment.

However, one problem that experts caution is when team members are unable to see the difference between a task conflict and a relationship conflict and confuse the two. Researchers warn that there are instances when team members fail to make a clear distinction between their task-related professional differences and other interpersonal differences. At times task-related disagreements take on a different connotation for team members and may result in the perception that there is a relationship break down or an interpersonal problem. A task-related conflict can be mistaken for an interpersonal issue and lead to a souring of the relationship.

In an effective team, this distinction will be clearly understood, and the team members are all friendly with each other when they come out of a heated discussion involving several disagreements. They will have no problem distinguishing between a task conflict and a relationship conflict. They don’t harbour grudges or anger simply because they had a professional disagreement. They don’t carry around any resentment just because someone had a differing viewpoint. They are easily able to seperate business from pleasure so to speak.

There are ways in which companies can ensure that team members understand the difference between task conflict and relationship conflict. They can foster task-related conflict and healthy debate by using skilful team building measures during training sessions. They can create exercises that promote experiential learning on the benefits of using conflict to their advantage in arriving at good decisions. The attempt has to be made to help teams realise that clashing on issues is good for the task so long as the conflict in left behind at the end of it.

The following pointers are indicative of the kind of attitude and approach necessary for team conflict to be productive and useful:

  • Easy Exchange of Ideas and Thoughts. Exchange of views is essential in teamwork. Everybody has to feel relaxed and be totally involved. Active participation in discussions is a basic tenet of effective teamwork.
  • Being Open to Others Views. There has to be a willingness to see another person’s point of view and a willingness to rethink one’s own position on a particular issue. Team members have to be ready and willing to appreciate other ideas and ready to zero in on the idea that is best for the project. The ‘I am always right’ kind of attitude will get a person nowhere in teamwork. Individual egos have no role in a team environment.
  • Taking Opposing Viewpoints in Stride. When someone on the team disagrees with an idea, team members should learn not to treat divergent viewpoints as a personal affront but rather as a stimulus for debate and further discussion.
  • Ability to Defend and Convince. Defending one’s position on a particular viewpoint is also important if individuals want to sell their ideas and convince other team members of it. The arguments have to be persuasive and based on sound reasoning for others to become convinced and trusting of the validity of the idea.

Conflict on strategic issues has to be actively encouraged, since the decisions that are made as a result of that conflict will be better thought out and have a better chance of being examined from every conceivable angle. The output from such discussions is likely to be far superior compared to the output of a team where hardly any varying viewpoints were introduced. Team effectiveness is directly related to the participation and contribution of the entire team since teams are constituted in the first place to tap the collective knowledge of the participants.

The Two Sides of Conflict

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