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Conflict amongst people is as old as Adam and Eve and Cain and Able. As long as human beings are together there will be conflict or at least the potential of conflict will exist. Obviously, we as a species have survived dealing with conflict. Not only have we survived; we have grown and matured. People’s relationships in many cases become better by dealing with conflict. Trust is built, relationships strengthened, and great things accomplished. But what is conflict and how can it turn out to be healthy?

There are several definitions in the research for conflict, such as “a process of social interaction involving struggle over claims to resources, power and status, beliefs, and other preferences and desires” or “disagreements and frictions among the team members generated by perceived incompatibilities or divergence in perceptions, expectations, and opinions”. Though these definitions cover broad ideas of conflict they lack certain key components such as conflict eliciting emotion, they minimize the relationship aspects, and do not cover communication issues as a key contributors. These three items will be important later on in the blog to help understand best practices for resolution.

The definition that is taught in The Mandt System® to define conflict is:
• Is an emotional state
• In a relationship
• With disagreements, misperceptions, miscommunication
• About needs, drives, wishes, demands, incompatible goals, scarce resources, interference from others. Arises when change is needed in one or more parties in order for the relationship to continue

The next thing to understand is conflict types. Thompson’s (2011) examines three conflict types when it comes to team conflict: Relationship, task, and process. Before leadership in an organization can deal with conflict it first must determine which type of conflict they face. The process of resolution and the steps necessary will be dependent upon this diagnosis. After the type of conflict is diagnosed the leader must also determine if there are factors around culture present driving conflict, the level of proportion and perception around the conflict and whether or not the conflict is real or symbolic (Thompson, 2011). All of these things must be examined closely to determine the approach necessary to work through healthy conflict resolution.

The first type of conflict that is examined is relationship conflict. Relationship conflict is also called affective, emotional, or type A (Thompson, 2011). This piece will use relationship and affective interchangeably throughout the writing dependent upon the source being cited. Relationship conflict is people based, personal in nature, and often involves issues around ego, gender, culture, or title. Another other area that will be examined in a future piece is simple personality differences that can lead to relationship-based conflicts. The examination of relationship conflicts is important for leaders in understanding team development and conflict resolution approaches.

Relationship conflict is the area that most managers and leaders struggle with and often times try to avoid. Relationship or affective conflict is dysfunctional and has the greatest long term negative affects on teams. According to research, affective conflict has the result in members of the team withdrawing from those things that assist in reaching team effectiveness. They also show that creativity and quality are lost due to the lack of different perspectives not occurring from the necessary open discussions. It therefore becomes imperative that managers and leaders not avoid relationship conflicts but recognize them early on and have the necessary tools to help members reach resolution.

The second type of conflict that is discussed by Thompson (2011) is task conflict or cognitive conflict. Task or cognitive conflict is not about personal related issues but rather occur around plans, ideas, or projects. In their research on team diversity, conflict, and trust, Cureu and Schruijer (2010) add viewpoints and opinions to the reasons for task conflict. The key difference is the depersonalized aspects of task conflict allow for greater diversity in opinions and ideas.

The third type of conflict that is mentioned by Thompson (2011) is process conflict. This type of conflict will be the least examined but bears mentioning. Like task conflict, process conflict does not have the personal aspects that are found in relationship conflict. The difference in process conflict from task conflict is that the conflict does not exist in the task but rather in the approach to handling the task. The conflict is the result of disagreements on how to achieve the goals and who is responsible for what part (Thompson, 2011). We will group process conflict into task conflict because both lack a personal nature but deserved mentioning and clarification. Processes will become much more important in determining the success of resolution.

The research is clear on the subject of functionality of conflict on team performance. Both relationship and task conflicts have negative affects on team performance (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). Relationship conflict interferes with team members ability to give full effort on a task because of spending time worrying about threat, struggling for leverage of power, and reconciling relationship issues (Thompson, 2011). The emotion associated with relationship conflict also pulls people further from their neo-cortex and interferes with a member’s ability to process information at a cognitive level. When relationship conflict reaches higher levels of emotion it can lead members to disassociate from the group or become out rightly defiant with their behavior.

Task or cognitive conflict has been shown in some studies to have a positive affect on team performance. Quotes include, “Conflict itself, especially when innovative alternatives are being analyzed and challenged, is a necessary ingredient in the creative process”, “much of the functional outcomes of conflict arise from cognitive conflict because it occurs as team members examine, compare and reconcile differences of opinions and perspectives”. The key is balancing the task conflict to avoid it from becoming relationship conflict.

“How conflict is managed within the group can bring out the best or the worst of team-oriented organizations” (Appelbaum & Shapiro, 1999, p. 60). The key to successfully utilizing the benefits of task conflict while reducing the unhealthy relationship conflicts rests in building healthy relationships at an early stage in teams. By developing principles of healthy relationships into teams conflicts can arise around differences in tasks and procedures but still not have a negative impact by turning into relationship conflicts that threaten to splinter teams. According to Appelbaum and Shapiro (1999) managers spend twenty percent or more of their time either trying to avoid or dealing with conflict. If leaders and managers would spend this time developing trusting relationships amongst team members, educating them on personality styles and role modeling healthy relationship characteristics, they would see the benefits that come with good healthy task conflict.

Tim Geels – Director of Organizational Sustainability

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