Although conflict is a natural part of working with others even moderate conflict in teams decreases their productivity. This means that teams have to learn how to navigate conflict effectively and prevent upward escalation. Pruitt & Rubin (1986) developed the Dual Concern model for conflict. Based on empirical evidence, they argue that the most effective strategy is to bring even modest conflicts into the light and to openly talk about them. The parties should then collaboratively seek solutions that address the needs of those involved.
How can we navigate conflict?
When we find ourselves in conflict with the needs or goals of others, there are different styles for how to navigate it. The past decades, social and organisational psychologists have converged predominantly on the Dual Concern Model (Pruitt & Rubin, 1986). It states that when we find ourselves in conflict, two aspects determine how we approach it intuitively: our ability to assert our own needs and our ability to empathize with the needs of the other(s). Based on these two dimensions, five styles emerge:
We can avoid the conflict by withdrawing from it. This can be done actively, by changing the subject or by physically moving away. But avoidance can also be done passively by not talking about it, by trying to remain neutral or by avoiding certain people, relationships or “hot” topics;
We can yield by giving in to the other for the sake of harmony. This is usually driven by a fear of conflict and how hurtful they can be. But yielding can also take the shape of understating how conflict affects you, by smoothing it over or by maintaining (an often fake) sense of calm;
We can force our needs onto the other(s) by taking an aggressive stance with the aim to win. This can take the shape of putting pressure on others, issuing threats and ultimatums, insulting them or even using physical violence;
We can use problem-solving or integration to seek ways to resolve a conflict in a way that meets the needs of both parties. This takes the shape of actively confronting the conflict together and openly talking about it. By objectively evaluating different viewpoints and experiences, we often find entirely new and creative solutions;
Finally, we can compromise by giving everyone involved part of what they want, but not enough to make them truly happy with the outcomes. This style risks being a lazy form of the integrative style;
So, how to improve?
👉 First, the science of team conflict warns of ignoring or diminishing conflict. Even moderate conflict can greatly reduce team effectiveness and cause negative emotions. So, there is a clear and compelling reason to bring these feelings out in the open. What is causing these conflicts and what can be done about it? Such conversations may be hard, but they are necessary. Just like a wound, conflicts that are left untreated tend to fester and cause more harm down the road. However, if the wound is healed the team may become stronger.
👉 Second, a useful strategy is for people to express how they feel and what makes them feel that way, but without resorting to blame and anger. A lot of conflict in teams is unintentional and asynchronous. People sometimes behave in ways that aggravate others but are unaware of this. The first step towards conflict navigation is to become aware of this.
👉 Third, it is important to realize that everyone experiences conflict differently. Some people find any conflict threatening and attempt to avoid it, while others see it as an opportunity for productive debate and tough conversations. How we respond to conflict is often shaped by our life experiences. Thus, it is useful for team members to learn about each other preferred conflict styles.
Actions to start small and simple are:
1️⃣ Everyone in the team takes one member in mind that they sometimes struggle with. At least twice during the Sprint, everyone will compliment that member with something they did well.
2️⃣ Everyone writes a postcard for someone else on the team. Each card should describe one moment of friction with the receiver, and what the sender appreciated or learned from that moment of friction.
3️⃣ Organize a game night or afternoon for your team somewhere during the next Sprint.
What is your experience with improving team conflict ❓ What recommendations do you have to help a team start improving❓
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