Conflict resolution strategies in teams

According to Olmstead (2000), among all of the elements that can impact upon performance in organizations, probably the most compelling influences are the groups of which organizations are comprised and to which people belong. In just about any organization of any size, opportunities exist for groups to develop. Whenever people work together, groups are inevitable.

Forsyth (2000) indicated that groups’ impacts upon the effectiveness of organizations are substantial. In the consideration of groups in organizations, teams are a special case. In the daily vernacular of many organizations, team is a common term referring to the fact that a number of people work together toward the same goals. However, in many other organizations operating in the high-tech world of today, teams take on special significance as groups that are specifically designed to require the integrated and highly coordinated activities of several people.

From the critical viewpoint, the effectiveness of a team within the organization is determined in terms of its performance. The latter to the major degree is influenced by a team’s or leadership ability to resolve the conflicts occurring in group or between team members. Therefore, effective conflict management in teams is considered detrimental to overall effectiveness of teams and success of an organization.

There is in everyday experience considerable evidence that a leader and his group can all be capable individuals with histories of successful performance in different organizations and yet be unable to work together effectively. The fact that a set of individually capable and well-trained people may not necessarily form an effective group points to the importance of interpersonal relations as a factor in group performance. Positive relationships may lead to better communication and wider interaction between group members.

In a group composed of friends, it would be expected that communication channels would be more open and more numerous. This, in turn, would be expected to exert facilitative effects on problem solving because it might lead to greater interchange of viewpoints and information and to more wide-spread contributions to problem solutions. In addition, the sense of mutual support and the active cooperation created by friendly relations will enable the group to deal more confidently with its tasks and with the environment, including the leader.

Many successful groups develop an awareness of the importance of interpersonal relations and exhibit much initiative in developing constructive relationships among the members. However, in addition, the leader must be able to encourage cooperative relationships among members, to recognize conflicts when they occur, and to deal with these conflicts appropriately (Tyler and Blader, 2000). In all groups, personal differences occur. In the give-and-take of group work, differences can occur that provoke feelings that may be either momentary or relatively enduring. Some of these differences serve useful functions, others can be highly destructive.

One problem for the leader of a group is to identify those that are destructive to unity and to cope with them in such a manner that their negative effects will be dissipated. Differences over both objectives and the means for accomplishment of objectives are inevitable and healthy as part of the decision-making process. A decision usually means a choice between alternatives.

If the choice were simple and clear-cut, there would be little need for joint effort. Accordingly, differences concerning the basic issues and the means for tackling them are desirable when they occur prior to the time a decision is made. After such time, of course, the effective group closes ranks to execute the decision regardless of its nature.

The opportunity for predecision differences to be brought into the open should be protected. To be highly effective, a group should always strive to maintain itself as a forum where all sides of important issues can be examined. The problem is to recognize and accept valid differences of opinion and to recognize as more destructive the conflict that springs from interpersonal hostility. The first kind of difference can be healthy and strengthening.

The second is destructive of cohesiveness and team spirit and leads toward poor and uncoordinated staff work. Here is a point where leadership can play a crucial role. Unless personal conflict can be dissipated and gradually turned toward more productive effort, not only the present task of the group but future undertakings may be endangered.

Personal conflict does not remain dormant. If it persists, the hostility between the central individuals will be increased. In turn, they are likely to search for allies among other members. Before long, the group can be split into hostile camps with all individuals forced to choose sides, even though they may really want neither side. Even if division of the group does not occur, personal conflict among the few individuals may grow until every undertaking becomes distorted by it. Nonfighting members, feeling dominated by the conflict of which they are not a part, may become apathetic.

Thus, a team effort is turned into a perpetual war. Whether differences are concerned with genuine issues or with personal conflict, it serves no purpose to bury them or ignore their existence. A more effective approach is to try to develop a climate where differences on issues are welcomed as part of the problem-solving process and where personal hostility can be recognized and dealt with as seems most appropriate.

Methods of managing conflict are the same as those for effective problem solving. If a problem had been solved effectively in the first place, there would be no need for a consultant or other mediator to introduce new methods in the second place. Since most of the conflicts that are of concern to team builders involve interpersonal problems, the ideal conflict resolution method will turn out to be one of using the method of consensus. Dyer (1987:115-118) suggests that a useful way to understand conflict is to view it as a violation of expectations. People have expectations about what is to be done, when it is to be done, and how it is to be done.

They may have agreed on the what, but find they disagree on the when or how. Dyer’s solution is to turn the disagreement into a problem-solving situation that requires the warring factions to try to work out solutions rather than spend time finding fault, placing blame, or looking for causes. One should avoid ignoring the disagreement, smoothing feelings even though an agreement has not been reached, and forcing an agreement, which may lead to public compliance but private resistance.

Reid and Hammersley observe that a team that practices effective interpersonal problem solving combines both confrontation and care for individual viewpoints. Listening skills are especially important (2000:76). How to confront a team member during a critique is a skill that may need to be learned. Criticism of another person may be withheld because of politeness, fear of “loss of face,” a disinclination to “rock the boat,” or inadequate skills (2000:96). When the conflict is between groups or teams, Reid and Hammersley stress the importance of identifying a common objective (2000:115). This is the same process as the one of identifying a common goal within a team that all members can agree with by using consensus.

Among the possible interventions that can be made by a third-party consultant for a team, Murdock and Scott lists the role of “peacemaker” (1997:102). However, authors caution that the consultant often assumes that “the impediments to consensus and mission-attainment are caused by misunderstandings, unauthentic relations, poor team work, and the like.” The consultant, with a background in group dynamics, may be poorly equipped to convert “distributive” bargaining into “integrative” bargaining when objective conditions of scarce resources make win-win solutions very difficult (1997:115).

Murdock and Scott actually indicate that scarce resources make win-win solutions “impossible.” However, the literature on pre-negotiation indicates that there are psychological resources, such as recognition, that can be equally or more important than physical resources.

Although reaching “win-win” solutions is often the stated goal in advice for mediators and negotiators, some of the advocates of this form of negotiation seem to have despaired of having the parties in conflict use this method once they reach the negotiating table, since each side is usually intent on obtaining the best bargain for its side. Thus they recommend that the basic process leading to a “consensus” decision be introduced during the “pre-negotiation” period (Hare, 1982).

The methods used in negotiation are essentially the same whether the dispute is between individuals, small groups, organizations, communities, or nations or larger entities. In its broadest sense, “pre-negotiation” includes all the activities that take place before the parties in the dispute can get to the table to negotiate a settlement. As part of this process, Smith (2001:69) emphasizes the importance of “face-to-face exploration into the needs of the opposing parties and the ways and means of satisfying them.’

Smith (2001) suggests that it is useful to define pre-negotiation prescriptively in terms of three separate but interrelated phases: (1) diagnostic, during which the parties jointly articulate the underlying concerns and issues and attempt to derive shared definitions of the conflict, (2) procedural, when the process and the issues to be addressed at any given phase are decided (some issues may be addressed through cooperative-integrative solutions and others through competitive-distributive solutions), and (3) agenda setting, when representatives of both sides work separately and with their counterparts to determine priorities and plan the details of the forthcoming negotiations.

Back in 1982 Hare in his book “Creativity in Small Groups” (1982:174-180) proposed a set of guidelines for creative solutions to conflict occurring in teams. According to Hare (1982), the problem-solving steps would be the same for an individual who is trying to find a creative solution to a physical problem. In outline, the major steps in the creative process are: (1) Define the problem; (2)

Collect data from relevant sources; (3) Question: Is a solution available in the system?; (4) If the answer is no, use a creative problem-solving routine: (a) skill level, (b) combination level, (c) extension of theory, or (d) new theory or system (branch out of the routine when the problem is solved and go on to Step 5); (5) If the answer is yes in Step 3, or if a solution is found in Step 4, try a pilot project; (6) If the pilot project is a success, secure agreement and commitment to the solution; (7) Implement the new system.

As a central part of the process, some “creative shift” is necessary at all levels. At the skill level the relationship to an object or a person may remain but the form will have changed, and must be seen to have changed, for example, in acquiring new sensitivity to the feelings of others through “sensitivity training.” In step 4 of the conflict resolution process, Hare (1982) points out that for a new combination, the group can use the old perception of the forms but needs a new perception of the relationships; for an extension of theory, the group needs to redefine some action as an instance of the application of a theory or to give a different valuation to existing relationships.

Thus some changes in ideas about both forms and relationships are required. Finally, a new theory requires some new forms (units) and new relationships.

“Brainstorming,” “creative problem solving,” “synectics,” and similar methods can be used to find creative solutions, primarily for physical problems, when new combinations are required (inventive level) or when theories need to be extended (innovative level). However the main emphasis in these techniques is on finding new combinations of objects by “joining together apparently irrelevant segments” (Lau et al, 2000).

If the problem is social rather than physical, then one is assuming at the third (inventive) level that the persons involved have the necessary social skills, but that some reorganization or extension of these skills is required; or perhaps it is necessary to compose new groups or sets of persons with all the required skills to realize the solution.

When the problem requires creativity at Level 4, the extension of theory (innovative) or Level 5, the development of a new theory or system (emergentive), then the scientific method is best for the solution of physical problems and the method of consensus the most sensitive for social problems.

To extend a current theory to provide a solution for a current problem, one searches through available theories in physical or social science or looks for a precedent in religion, law, politics, or economic practice. For this purpose, a panel of experts who are familiar with the various theories that might have some application can be consulted.


Dyer William G. (1987). Team building: Issues and alternatives (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Forsyth, D. R. (Ed.). “100 Years of Group Research.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research,and Practice, 4(1), March 2000 Hare P. (1982) Creativity in Small Groups, Beverl Hills, Cal.: Sage Publications Lau, F., Sarker, S., & Sahay, S. (2000). “On managing virtual teams.” Healthcare InformationManagement Communications Canada. 14, 46-53 Murdock, A., and C. N. Scott. Personal Effectiveness. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997.

Olmstead, J. A. (2002). Creating Functionally Competent Organizations: An Open Systems Approach. Westport, CT: Quorum Books Reid, M., and R. Hammersley. Communicating Successfully in Groups: A Practical Guide for the Workplace. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2000 Smith, A. L. (2001). Innovative Employee Communication: New Approaches to Improving Trust, Teamwork Performance, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ Tyler, T. R., and S. Blader (2000). Cooperation in Groups in Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Behavioral Engagement. Philadelphia: Psychology Press