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Working in groups and teams
Working in groups and teams

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6.1 Ways to deal with conflict

Once you have identified a disagreement and understood why it has arisen, you then have to decide what to do about it. You will need to consider a number of factors, including the seriousness of the conflict, the timescale (whether it needs to be resolved quickly or not), the ideal or preferred outcome, and your own power and preferences, strengths and weaknesses. If the conflict is relatively trivial or is a ‘healthy’ disagreement, you may decide that it is better to let it run its course. However, if there is a danger of the conflict escalating and becoming destructive, you will want to act. You have three choices: to ignore it, to prevent it occurring, or to resolve it.

Non-intervention. This is quite common and can be successful. However, there is always the risk that the conflict will become destructive; failure to intervene may make the situation worse.

Prevention. Your chances of preventing conflict will increase if you create a climate in which people seek win–win solutions. You can contribute to this by:

  • establishing common goals: identify higher-level goals on which all people can agree
  • changing the roles or groupings of individuals: this can remove sources of conflict
  • improving communications by encouraging an atmosphere of debate and questioning.

Resolution. When conflict is not constructive you may have to intervene to find a solution by:

  • facilitating: this will usually involve allowing individuals to explain their feelings and encouraging them to put their conflict into perspective
  • imposition: people can sometimes be forced to behave differently through a threat of disciplinary action; however, this may not resolve the cause of the conflict and may cause further problems in the future
  • negotiation: this involves bringing people together to seek and agree a solution; it is likely to require concessions from both sides, and may benefit from creative approaches to find a solution to the problem.

These different approaches to resolving conflict are illustrated in the example in Box 8.

Box 8 Managing conflict

Johanna groaned as she read the memo from the HR Director saying that all staff would be required to keep worksheets for activity costing. She had expected this, but she knew it would cause massive opposition from staff. After some thought, she asked Barbara, her secretary, to visit staff members to ask them approximately how much time they expected to spend on each project. Barbara would complete and send the worksheets. This way Johanna would avoid conflict with her staff, while still providing the information needed.

Just as Johanna finished reading the memo, the fire alarm went off. Two hours later, after the fire brigade had left, she was looking at the kettle with its burnt cord – no major damage had been caused, but it had seriously disrupted work. After lunch she wrote a memo to all staff in the building: no personal electrical appliances would be permitted. There were perfectly adequate kitchens on each floor, and the safety risk was too great. She was therefore content to impose a solution.

She then went to talk to Monica and Andrew, both members of the same project team who were complaining angrily about one another. Andrew, recruited for his technical knowledge, had told Johanna earlier in the day that he could not work with Monica because she had too little experience and she seemed unwilling to take his views seriously. Monica had complained about Andrew’s disruptive behaviour and lack of technical knowledge. Johanna suggested to her that if she were to be successful in the organisation she needed to develop the ability to work with people like Andrew. He had experience that she lacked, and his skills would be needed to implement the project. Johanna suggested that Monica gave weight to Andrew’s views in team meetings, and gave him clear accountability for parts of the project. Later, she told Andrew that his experience was vital to the success of the project, and that he should see part of his role as guiding and developing team members such as Monica. Johanna would talk to Monica and Andrew again in a week. It was important that these two learned how to work with each other, so she would take the time to facilitate this.