The Keystone Cops, 'In the Clutches of the Gang, 1914, directed by George Nichols and Mack Sennett (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #523

How to Avoid Task Conflicts Damaging Team Relationships

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Key Concept

The potential performance benefits of task-related conflicts can be jeopardized when those conflicts deteriorate into personal relationship conflicts. Strong team identification can prevent such deterioration — as long as the original conflict is of medium intensity.

Idea Summary

As team members work on various (team) tasks and project, conflicts can arise over issues such as, for example, how the work should be done, or the best way to achieve results. While solutions can emerge from productive give-and-take, task-related conflicts tend to slide into personal relationship conflicts. This occurs for several reasons. Often, work criticisms or disagreements are misinterpreted as personal attacks. Another reason is the harsh behaviour — for example, aggressive language, or humiliating or intimidating tactics — that can occur in the heat of an intense debate.

A research team, using data collected from 88 development teams in 60 German companies from a variety of industrial and manufacturing sectors, explored the association between task conflicts and relationship conflicts and the different factors that might prevent task conflicts from destroying personal relationships on the team.

Their research led to the following conclusions:

  • Team conflicts are often associated with relationship conflicts. The researchers confirmed through the data that task conflicts on a team are often associated with relationship conflicts.
  • Team identification mitigates the association between team conflicts and relationship conflicts. Team identification refers to how strongly individual team members identify with the team. In other words, high levels of team identification would indicate that there are strong emotional ties among team members. The team members share a strong sense of belonging. A higher level of team identification can help the team overcome the tension of task conflicts and the devolution of task conflicts into personal animosity and strained relations.
  • Team member alignment fails to buffer the association between team conflicts and relationship conflicts.  A second factor investigated by the researchers was team member alignment. Alignment occurs when all the members of a team are focused on the same short- and long-term goals, and when the team is rewarded based on team performance, not individual performance. While team identification is emotion-driven, team member alignment is more structural. The research results, however, did not show any significant impact of high team member alignment on the likelihood of team conflicts leading to relationship conflicts.
  • The level of task conflict matters. The research showed that the potential for team identification to mitigates the association between task conflicts and relationship conflicts depended on the level of the task conflict. Specifically, if the original task conflict was of medium intensity, high team identification could keep those conflicts from damaging relationships on the team. For low levels of task conflicts, team identification, somewhat intuitively, did not make much of a difference; this is not surprising since low task conflicts are less likely to hurt relationships. For high levels of task conflicts, on the other hand, the research showed that the conflicts inevitably spilled over into the relationships, whether or not the team members showed high identification with their team.

Business Application

This research shows that under certain conditions — specifically high levels of team identification by members of the team and medium levels of task conflict — the deterioration of task conflicts into relationship conflicts can be avoided. The key is to ensure high levels of team identification and to keep the level of task conflicts from becoming too intense.

Transformational leaders can reinforce high team identification by presenting a compelling shared vision for the team. Leaders must also unequivocally model team-oriented behaviour.

Another important factor in encouraging team identification is communication and interaction among team members. Organizations must ensure that team members have every opportunity to interact and communicate, therefore strengthening their bonds. Team building exercises will also reinforce team identification.

Team leaders also have an important role in avoiding high levels of task conflicts. Laying the ground rules for cooperation and collaboration is an important step. For example, team members must understand that constructive dissent is beneficial and expected, but that everyone must also be aware of and vigilant about the danger of constructive task conflicts deteriorating into destructive relationship conflicts. Having strategies in place to deal with contentious discussions that are getting personal is vital.

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