Conflict as a team tool


Growth inside an organization, particularly on manpower, often requires dependence not just on individual skills and productivity but also on the teams which is often a characteristic of an organization, even if team performance has always been more complex to handle compared to individual performance (Bruce, Pepitone, 1998, p. 139).

The presence and creation of teams inside an organization is important because this allows the management to focus tasks and responsibilities for a particular team – tasks which is too much for one person to handle but too small to be the focus of the efforts of an entire department. Lodged between individual and department performance, capability and productivity, teams – and how they function – have always been an important point of concern for management. Some observers believe that teams in the long run are worth the time and effort because of the advantages it provides (Bruce, Pepitone, 1998, p. 139).

And because the company is looking at the ability of the teams to perform and deliver, it is important to investigate the state of independence of a team, which is highly encouraged in many practices today (Bruce, Pepitone, 1998, p.139) and is something that is highly important. “Autonomy is essential for a team to become highly effective and efficient (Sperry, 2004, p. 107).” Another important aspect in the assessment of team creation and management is conflict management, particularly how to transform conflict into a tool that can be utilized by the team.

While there are no totally independent teams inside every organization especially since teams are still strongly connected and somewhat dependent to other teams as well as to other groups in the company in the long run, these teams too have a certain degree of independence and connection with each other. It is important to know what is the level of task independence is considered acceptable and what is not acceptable, as well as the presence of conflicts experienced by these two teams and how this state of conflict can be transformed into something useful and positive for the team, the department and the company.

Level of Task Independence Acceptable between Teams

 The acceptable level of task independence one team exercises over the other teams should be characterized by the ability of one team to be productive and functional regardless of the performance of other teams. This is an acceptable level of independence because it fosters and engenders productivity and allows one team to excel and be productive and contribute to the company/organization even if other teams, in particular circumstances, cannot do so in the same level, providing the company’s much-needed productivity which can cover the goals and may even off-set what other teams may have failed to accomplish over a particular period of time.

Teams should not be dependent with each other in the aspect of productivity and functionality because it is dangerous to make teams totally dependent on each other when it comes to tasks.

Accomplishing tasks wherein teams are dependent on one another strongly affects productivity. Darryl Enos (2007) explains that in a situation wherein Steps 1 and 4 is accomplished by one team and steps 2 and 3 is done by another team, cooperation between teams is needed (Enos, 2007, p. 164) as well as dependence, thus, making the quality and state of output of both teams dependent on what they accomplish collectively; if one fails they both fail. This means the output of teams A and B can be considered as worthless if only one of the two teams failed. But if teams

A and B are task independent from one another, the team that accomplishes the task can be considered as successful in achieving the goal regardless of what happens to other teams. In this style/approach, the company is giving itself more chances for productivity if teams are task independent at a particular level with the rest of the other teams.

Karwowski (2006) explained this via a realistic example, citing the case of a Netherlands-based construction firm which opted to utilize teams independent of each other. Because of the teams being able to work independently with one another, productivity improved, rising to 15 percent, and costs where cut down, adding that because of the concept of independent teams which are task-independent, there were “fewer disruptions, 20% fewer mistakes, 4% cost savings, the workers suffered less stress…material losses were reduced from 10-15% to 3-4% and the team spirit increased markedly (Karwowski, 2006, p. 2562).”

This level of task independence found in teams reflect the strength found in independent teams, while at the same time it also reflects the optimum potential for productivity expected of a team, especially since organizations resort to the creation of teams for productivity considerations in the first place (Kandula, 2006, p. 151).

To be able to be task independent at an acceptable level, the supervisor/manager should endow equally all of the teams separately with instructions as well as capability (logistics, resources, manpower etc) and similar yet independent goals and aims to achieve and similar means to accomplish it. This is acceptable task independence by one team from the other teams. In lieu of this, another important characteristic of the acceptable level of task independence by one team from the rest of the other teams is by giving each and every one team equal level of interference coming from the immediate supervisor or manager.

“Managers need to provide teams with opportunities to function independently as well as interdependently (Sperry, 2004, p. 107).” It is important that teams are task independent in the sense that it is not highly dependent on other teams, as much as it is not highly dependent on its supervisor and/or manager for constant guidance and direction (Manion, Lorimer, Leander, 1996, p. 67). More importantly, this particular independence from the supervisor/manager is something that all of the teams share. This is important because a team may not be different from a team that is overly dependent on other teams and lack task independence if the team is overly dependent on the manager/supervisor.

While the manager/supervisor is not the same as the other team, dependence on the supervisor/manager nonetheless presents the same impact to the team, similar to the threats posed by dependency of one team to other teams. Because of this, the team should be independent at some level and degree from other teams as much as it is task independent in the same level from the supervising or managing entity.

Other characteristics of an acceptable level of task independence of each teams can include what Kandula (2004) explained as the management of their “own scheduling, clearly expressing their needs, and meet challenging goals with limited resources, which point to the necessary autonomy of teams with little details that they can manage and control sans the external control or influence of other teams or even the manager/supervisor (Kandula, 2004, p. 168).”

Task independence becomes problematic and not acceptable to the company once it already engenders excessive, dangerous and harmful levels of competition that makes team members do things that can sabotage the output of other teams (which, in turn can be beneficial for the other teams and the other teams’ productivity). Independence can lead to conflict between teams. With the presence of conflict, there maybe instances wherein team members of a particular team do things that can undermine the efforts of other teams, like withholding information as well as assistance (Kandula, 2004, p. 168).

This is not healthy for the team, the department and the company in the long run. This is not an acceptable level of task independence between teams because the negative impact of this situation affects just one entity in the long run: the company.

Confusion between teams because of task independence is also not acceptable because it can ruin the company and the company’s reputation.

An example is Jeanne M. Brett’s (2007) discussion of the predicament of a European pharmaceutical company which tasked independent approval teams stationed in different parts of the world. Because each team adheres to the existing regional or national approval standards, what happened was there was no uniformity in standardized drug approval for the company – what was not good enough for one team was considered good enough for other teams, depending on the guidelines they are following based on their own decision making paradigm, resulting to task conflict which is dangerous for the team, the department and the company (Brett, 2007, p. 177).

The Impact of Inter-Team Conflict on Departmental Performance: Conflict as a Team Tool

Traditional belief puts it that the absence of conflict between teams result to positive output. This still holds true today, as teams successful in working together are found to be effective and innovative (Beer, Pereira, Paton, 2008, p. 325). But there are also those who explore the positive impact of conflict on team performance and how conflict can be used as a team tool. Conflicts that are found between teams inside an organization is not something unusual, because there are many different reasons why conflict would erupt between teams.

More often than not, one or more of the reasons usually happen or occur inside an organization, triggering a conflict between teams. But the presence of conflict should not be considered as solely negative. Besides its negative impact, conflicts between teams may also have a particular positive impact – particularly, the conflict being used as a positive tool for each of the teams. Conflict affects team performance, and team performance contributes significantly to departmental performance.

This chain reaction can be controlled and be made positive if the management handles conflict between teams efficiently. If the conflict can be turned into a positive team tool, then this can augur to better team performance that can enhance the departmental performance. But if the conflict is not handled well, this can be a negative aspect of the company that can negatively affect team performance, which in turn can render negative effects to the overall department performance.

In Daniel Dana’s (2000) “Conflict Resolution”, the author concluded in the analysis that the negative impact of conflict could have been avoided if it was addressed early on – in the team level – before it worsens and becomes a bigger and broader problem (Dana, 2000, p. 31).

Similarly, if the management wants to make conflict as a positive team tool, the effort should start at the team level. Conflict among teams arise when there is no coordination or cooperation between teams, and observers note that cooperation and coordination between teams has been one of the significant problems experienced commonly by many organizations. “Inter-team cooperation and coordination is frequently needed and yet difficult to accomplish at times (Enos, 2007, p. 164).”

The lack of cooperation is caused by many things, including the presence of conflicts between teams and between the members of the different teams. But conflict between teams can also stem from the desire to compete, especially in cases wherein resources are limited and teams have to compete or fight for it (Bell, Wilson, McBride, 1994, p. 176). There is also possible team conflict if the goals of the teams are not compatible with each other (Bell, Wilson, McBride, 1994, p. 176).

The positive effect of inter-team conflict can be found in the ability of the presence of such conflict to promote improved productivity among teams. Kandula (2004) explained that inter-team conflicts often result to enhanced productivity of the teams because conflict between teams can make the teams overzealous in the effort to outdo other teams (Kandula, 2004, p. 168).

Martocchio (2005) pointed out that this positive effect of the presence of conflict between teams is ideal and can help the teams (and in the long run the department and the company) perform better during situations wherein “demands for intergroup cooperation is low (Martocchio, 2005, p. 26).” According to Martocchio, it is dangerous for teams to have conflict amidst them when the demand for intergroup cooperation is high.

The author cited the example found in a manufacturing company wherein the different teams create their own lathe configurations in their quest for better performance. But since they do not share the same outlook and style, the teams are all taking time undoing what other teams did, and this created unnecessary costs for the company and made the department and company performance weaker and slower because of the time spent on undoing things before proceeding to productive work (Martocchio, 2005, p. 26).

Amason and Schweiger (1997) also provided another important input with regards to the notion on considering conflict as a team tool that can contribute positively to team as well as company attitude and performance (Amason and Schweiger, 1997, p. 101). According to Amason and Schweiger (1997), a positive impact of conflict is that it allows better decision-making paradigm inside a team among team members through the resorting to the exploration of more options and more alternatives because of conflict.

Similarly, conflict allows the experience of better understanding among teams and team members which, in turn translates to better implementation of whatever decision was agreed upon (Amason and Schweiger, 1997, p. 101). The conflict between teams over decision making allows these groups to think and re-think things, exploring more and better options in the process.


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