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Conflict management: how to use it to improve teamwork 8 min read
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“Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right. You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” — Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Conflict can improve your team’s performance, as the cut and thrust can generate new ideas and reveal creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But negative conflict between highly-motivated people focusing more on not losing the argument poisons the atmosphere, undermines morale, and destroys teams. This article discusses the positive outcomes effective conflict management can produce. It presents some useful skills and reveals the important role Work OS can play in any conflict management strategy.

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What is conflict management?

Conflict management is being sensitive to shifting behaviors in a team and responding to potential flash points quickly, effectively and impartially.

Some conflicts can arise from spur-of-the-moment issues that escalate, while others may be due to deep-rooted and long-term unresolved problems. Regardless of their origins, both types of workplace conflict produce similar results — team members pulling in different directions, reducing the effectiveness of the team and leaving lingering resentments that members carry into their next projects.

Conflict management is the practice of turning team disputes and disagreements into positive outcomes through tact and skill. Outcomes from effective conflict management experiences generate resolutions that respect the wants and needs of all affected team members while simultaneously advancing the project. Although every conflict is unique and should be treated as such, there are four steps that every manager should follow in sequence, regardless of the issue:

  1. Open communication: This encourages openness, enabling all team members and the manager to learn as much about the problem as possible.
  2. Develop a solution: The team comes together to imagine a pathway through the problem that respects all conflicted parties.
  3. Explore options: The team considers all possible solutions to the issue together.
  4. Compromise: The team develops an action plan that’s best for the project, but includes input from all team members.

When should conflict management be used during a project?

Conflict is most likely to occur during the storming stage of Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development model. The team is in the early stages of its formation. Members are beginning to reveal their individual working styles, jockey for positions of influence, and promote their own ideas. The team’s manager must recognize this phase and respond quickly to potential issues before the parties involved become lodged in their respective camps, delaying or jeopardizing the project’s intended outcome as a consequence.

Conflict management skills

Handling and resolving conflict is a crucial skill that every team or project manager must have and continually develop. Conflict management requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, as engaging with the people involved usually has more to do with their egos and sensitivities than it has with the work at hand. Therefore, to effectively resolve conflict, the manager must be impartial, respect each individual equally, and remain absolutely focused on the project’s intended outcome.

The most effective conflict management skill is implementing measures that actually prevent conflict from arising. Teams are groups of individuals that must be guided into alignment if they are to succeed. Project managers can facilitate this by:

  • Encouraging open communication and transparency
  • Actively listening to every team member without prejudice
  • Announcing clear expectations and goals
  • Encouraging collaborations and ensuring everyone knows their role within the project
  • Establishing ethical standards quickly, so each member knows his boundaries
  • Prompting teams to resolve mistakes together and avoiding negative responses to errors, such as criticizing and complaining

Examples of conflict management strategies 

There are five common problem-solving strategies a manager should use to resolve sources of conflict within their teams. They shouldn’t all be used in one situation, as each is aimed at generating a specific outcome. Rather, the manager should apply the appropriate solution to the circumstance.

  1. Accommodation: This involves lose/win, where one team member is willing to relinquish their position. This shouldn’t be interpreted as being coerced. The key word is willing.
  2. Compromise: This involves a win/lose, where all conflicted parties agree to find common ground through negotiation.
  3. Avoidance: A lose/lose situation where all parties agree to drop the issue. This typically happens in minor disagreements or when everyone accepts stepping back and cooling down is the best short-term solution.
  4. Competition: A win/lose where one party attempts to dominate the issue. This should only be used when all else fails, or in a crisis that must be handled immediately.
  5. Collaboration: The ideal solution, as it’s win/win. However, it’s also the most difficult to achieve, as it requires strong elements of trust, respect, and empathy within the team. Teams only develop over time, and no two teams develop at the same pace. This method is most useful when there’s time to consider multiple solutions that incorporate the individual talents of each team member.

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Using Work OS as a part of conflict management strategy

Workplace conflict can increase employee turnover rates and absenteeism, negatively impact an employer’s reputation, and reduce the quality of the work produced. It’s estimated to cost U.S. businesses almost $340 billion every year. Managers should therefore not rely solely on what they recall seeing and hearing. Memory is an unreliable tool for recording sources of conflict and the people involved, as well as being an ineffective medium for spotting patterns of behavior that reveal more than isolated incidents do.

Building from scratch or using a template as a starting point, managers can utilize the power of Work OS to develop simple conflict management programs unique to each project. This enables managers to record a wealth of information about team members that goes beyond the skills they possess and the positions they hold. It can include a manager’s observations around their personal interactions, different working styles, and throwaway comments that could be disguising something deeper. Work OS can provide visuals on behavior patterns that can be an indicator of evolving issues. It can also monitor the progress of a conflict resolution agreement, making it easier for the manager and the team to visualize the success of their jointly-created solutions. Work OS isn’t only useful to project managers. Scrum masters will find its powerful features just as fruitful as they manage communication between small teams that need to self-organize and not be bogged down by personality conflicts or clashes in working style.

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Frequently asked questions

What are the five conflict management strategies?

  1. Accommodating — one team member abandoning their position for the sake of team unity
  2. Avoiding — dropping the issue permanently or temporarily
  3. Compromising — the team collectively finds enough areas of agreement to overcome the issue
  4. Competing — one party imposes their will due to immediate need or to overcome a damaging impasse
  5. Collaboration — the team operates at a high level, unburdened by egos and strengthened by trust, empathy, and respect for each other

What is the best way to manage conflict?

Always keep communication lines open, focus on the issue and not the people involved, listen actively, identify points of agreement and disagreement, agree on priorities with the conflicted parties, jointly develop a plan for each priority, and implement the plan as agreed.

What are the four steps to conflict management?

  1. Learn all you can about the issue
  2. Develop a vision with your team for the future
  3. Explore ways of resolving the issue together
  4. Agree on actions that produce a win-win outcome

How Work OS simplifies monitoring conflict management strategies

Conflict management is tactful problem solving, seeing others’ points of view, and resolving disputes in such a way that all team members feel heard and respected, even if their preferred solution isn’t the eventual outcome. An effective project manager is sensitive to behavioral changes in their team, especially microaggressions, and is willing to work with all parties equally to resolve issues. An effective tool for recording a team’s conduct and identifying patterns of behavior, Work OS is a useful conflict management resource.

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