4.4 Managing Team Conflict

It’s important to recognize that whenever people work together in teams, conflicts are bound to arise — and this is okay. Some conflict, if managed effectively, can be productive and lead to unexpected innovations. Poorly managed conflict, however, can be detrimental, and can even derail a team and the project entirely.

Often, conflict arises from confusion over team members’ roles and team goals. For example, if one team member’s goal is to get an A+ on the project, and anther’s is to simply pass, their goals are misaligned, and this will show in work ethic and commitment to the project. If team members do not share the same goals, or if members are unsure of what their role is in the team, this can lead to anxiety, confusion, or even anger. This in turn can cause unproductive behaviours like isolating (breaking away from the team and just doing work on your own), hijacking (taking over the project without consulting with the team), or hitchhiking (just coming along for the ride, but not contributing).

How to deal with team conflict? The first strategy is to develop systems that help to prevent conflict where possible. You can do this in the forming stage by creating clear team guidelines and expectations. Creating a Team Charter can help you define team goals, expectations for equitable contribution, and procedures for communicating and producing work. You can also define problem-solving approaches that your team will use when conflicts arise.

Think about conflicts or problems you have had before when working in teams. Can you think of ways you could have planned ahead to prevent them?

Even with these preventative measures, however, conflict is bound to come up. So you need to have some  strategies for managing it effectively when it does arise. Here is a list of some effective approaches to keep in your tool box:

  1. Acknowledge, understand, and value the diversity within your team; recognize team members’ various strengths and weaknesses, and play to your strengths, while acknowledging and trying to improve on your weaknesses.
  2. Don’t “silo” (break up into smaller teams of “us” vs “them”); deal with issues as a team
  3. Don’t ignore problems or conflicts; deal with them head on; communicate issues quickly and directly with the whole team; maybe review the team charter to remind you of what the expectations and protocols are.
  4. “Don’t sweat the small stuff”; don’t get side-tracked by minor differences of opinion or approach that don’t have a significant effect on the project; be willing to make some compromises.
  5. But keep in mind that compromise does not always lead to the best solution; be a strong, but diplomatic advocate for what you think is the best approach. Persuade, but don’t bully. Your team mates will thank you for it in the long run.
  6. Separate the “people” from the “problem” (avoid “blame game”); don’t dwell on past actions and consequences; focus on coming up with solutions that benefit the whole team.
  7. Focus on “interests” not “positions” —  that is, focus on what is in the best interests of the team rather than on “your position” vs “my position”; try playing “devil’s advocate” or use “debate” format to argue for/against ideas in an objective and neutral way.
  8. Reviewing the Models for Understanding Team Dynamics in Ch. 4.2 may give you insights into some of the causes of team issues and ideas for solutions.

If your conflict management strategies are not working as well as you’d like, consult with your facilitator, instructor, or TA for additional support – before it’s too late to solve the problem. Especially if you feel like the problems is impacting your grade, you should alert the instructor as soon as possible. Your instructor will have additional “managerial” tools to help deal with the problem that are not necessarily available to you as students.


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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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