The Nature of Conflict in Project-Based Teams

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Last updated: March 2, 2019

Our topic on conflict was inspired by the experiences we shared as a team in course LDR 6110- Leading Teams. At the start of the course, we were randomly broken up into teams.

The demographics of our class are such that majority of the students are from foreign countries.In preparing our presentation for our class, we researched the topic of conflict, power and decision making. However, the topic of conflict we found to be the most fundamental and crucial to understand in its own right to better understand the dynamics of power and decision making. Levi (2011, Chapter 7) makes it very clear on the outset that conflict is not all bad and in fact has dimensions that are quite healthy. The fear of conflict, and more so its avoidance for the sake of conformity and preserving the cohesiveness of the group, can lead to the team being resistant to creativity and outside input (Nemeth & Staw, 1989, in Levi, pg)The healthy and unhealthy components of conflict contributed to a better understanding of our challenges and using conflict as a springboard for greater productivity in our group. This was something we discovered only midway through our team on a five week course. One reason for this is the fact that we had very little time to form as a team.

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In addition, our team projects forces us to go through stages of Storming (conflict), Norming (establishing rules and responsibilities), and Performing (completing our task) (Tuckman & Jenson, 1977 in Levi, pg. 40) rather quickly.Our seven-person team is made up of the following nationalities: American, Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese. The combination of our different cultures, languages, communication and interfacing barriers, and having one older and more experienced member, made for quite a learning experience for all members in terms of leadership and team development. Inspired by the dynamics of our team, we wanted to explore the nature and patters conflicts within similar teams here at Northeastern to see what aspects of the issues we underwent as a team were found in other teams on campus.We divided clear tasks amongst our team to suit the strengths of each member, identified clear goals and created a reasonable time frame by which each stage of our research and presentation needs to be completed. Even in the collaboration and preparation of this paper, we underwent both healthy and unhealthy aspects of conflict making this study very much alive for each of us individually and collectively as a unit.

HYPTHESIS: We predicted that the nature of conflict we found in our team and in the teams we study will fall into similar categories and within the categories discussed in class (Levi, 2011 pg. 14 ). Although we experienced many of these conflicts as a team, and even came to resolve some of them, the nature of our conflicts should correspond to the teams we study. LITERATURE REVIEW: In reviewing the research for our topic, we focused on two areas that address conflict in teams: Causes of Conflict and Approaches to Conflict Resolution. Reasons for Conflict (Wendy) We, as human beings, have our own characteristics. And so does conflict. In team settings especially, we need to understand the role and opportunity that conflict brings.

When conflict is understood, it is easier to find approaches to predict it, prevent it, transform it, and resolve it. Putnam (1988, p. 552) defines conflict as “the interaction of interdependent people who perceive opposition of goals, aims, and values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with the realization of these goals. ” With this definition, conflict is viewed as a process in which one side senses that its own rights are being confronted or negatively affected by another side. Conflict has been researched since the 1960s and the research has developed over time.In the beginning, conflict had a negative connotation and was viewed as something to avoid. In the 1970s, conflict research shifted slightly and was seen as more manageable. Nowadays, most research emphasizes the value that conflict can bring to a team.

(Putnam, 1988, p. 295-p. 300) I terms of the cause of conflict, Friedman, Tidd, Currall, and Tsai (2000) suggest that “conflict occurs through the communication of a variety of issues including differences of opinion, procedural problems, and disagreements over approaches to work oriented tasks. (PG. # ) James and Ronda (1995) suggest two factors that contribute to conflict; individual characteristics, such as different blood type, personal attitudes, and varied cultures, and interpersonal factors, such as perception of others, communication, behaviors, structures, and previous interactions. (PG. # ) Finally, as mentioned above, Levi (2011) divides the causes of conflict into healthy and unhealthy dimensions.

The healthy dimensions include focusing on tasks and legitimate differences of opinion, values and expectations.Unhealthy conflict include issues of power, conflict in team goals, poorly run meetings, faulty communication and personal grudges against other team members. PINKY- WHERE IS THE ARTICLE/SURVEY BY BRUSKO THAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR REFERENCES Approaches to Conflict Resolution (Paris) People can generate different solutions for the conflict they encounter. However, authors have classified the behaviors which people possess when facing conflict into five styles. According to Rahim (2011, p. 26), in 1940, Mary P.

Follett was the first to introduce the five styles of handling conflict. At that time, Follett ranked those five styles by main and secondary ways of handling conflict. The main ways include domination, compromise and integration while the secondary ways include avoidance and suppression.

In 1979, Rahim and Bonoma arranged the five styles into the two dimensions: concern for self and concern for others (Rahim, 2011, p. 27). Below are the five approaches to conflict resolution in further detail. Avoidance: According to Levi (2011, pg. 19), avoidance is when people ignore the problem and act like there is no problem. They also retreat from the situation both physically and psychologically (Olekalns, Putnam, Weingart and Metcalf edited by De Dreu, 2008).

Rahim (2011) adds that people who possess this style of handling conflict reveal low concern towards both the problem and parties involved. Hence, they will neither satisfy their own concerns nor those of others. One example of avoidance is when members in a team want to keep good relationships; they avoid and ignore the fact that there is an issue.It is common in teams that if the team members are friends after work or class, that members are less likely to want conflict to negatively affect their friendship.

Levi adds that avoidance is also a hope that the issue will disappear on its own, otherwise knows as the ‘cappuccino effect. ’ Accommodation: People who use the accommodation approach to conflict possess a high level of cooperation and a low level of assertiveness. Different from avoidance, accommodation is when people achieve agreement and maintain the peaceful environment by giving up their own ideas and opinions and agree with others (Levi 2011, p. 19). Rahim (2011, p28) calls this approach ‘obliging style’- as one party puts their own self-concern lower than the concern for others in order to satisfy the other party. An example of this style is when there is a hostile member or a member who dominates the team, the other team members tend to agree to keep an amiable environment. Confrontation: This style is called the dominating style by Rahim (2011).

If accommodation is when a party give up on its opinion easily, confrontation refers to when a person is aggressive and stands firm to win the conflict.Using the confrontation style, people are assertive about their concern and have low cooperation to satisfy the concerns of others. According to Levi (2011, p. 119), for these people, winning the conflict is more important than having the right decision as a team. Agreeing with Levi, Rahim (2011,p. 28) adds that dominating members use their power to impose their ideas or opinions upon others. However, confrontation is not necessarily a dictatorial style. In some cases, people who stand up or defend for the side that they think it right are expressing more of a confrontation style.

Rahim 2011, p. 28) In the five modes for handling the conflicts from Blake and Mouton (1964, cited by Schwalbe, 2010, p. 239), confrontation is considered the best approach for team members if all members adopt this style. It empowers each member to find the best solution for the conflict. Collaboration: Collaboration is the ideal style of handling conflict, as the team members possess high level of assertiveness as well as cooperativeness, which means they have a concern both for themselves and others. Levi (2011,p.

119) stresses that this solution satisfies both sides with mutual respect.In Rahim’s book, Managing Conflict in Organizations, he mentions that the integrating style is described as having the same features as collaboration. Using this style, both parties have the space to view the issue from multiple perspectives.

This in turn helps them generate a solution that will go beyond the limited vision of each side (Gray, 1989, cited by Rahim 2011, p. 28). This style promotes greater creativity, commitment and relationship among members. (Pruitt, 1986, pg. ) Compromise: People who compromise have medium level of self-concern and concern about others.In the compromising approach, each member ‘gives in’ to bring about a solution (Levi, 2011 pg. 118).

Both sides look for decisions that bring mutual benefit (Rahim 2011, p. 29). There is no winner or loser if members adopt this style as both sides involved in the conflict can have benefit from the concessions of the other parties.

According to Schwalbe (2010, p. 240), compromising is effective when the issue and relationship between two parties are of medium importance. However, Pruitt (1983) notes that compromise style is a “lazy” approach in which both parties give half effort to satisfy the interest of the other party.TABLE 1. 5 below shows the above described approaches to conflict based on the assertiveness or cooperativeness of the group. TABLE 1.

5 (Thomas, 1976 cited by Levi, 2011, pg. 118) METHOD: We created a survey in the form of a questionnaire for student teams on campus that addressed the make up of their teams and conflicts they have experienced (SEE APPENDIX A). The matrices of the questionnaire were based on Levi’s (2011, pg…. ) Causes of Conflict. We also drew upon research in the area of conflict that are included in the Literature Review section.In addition, we brainstormed other questions that we felt would give us information that would help find patterns and better understand conflict in teams. In the end, we trimmed 25 questions down to seven that would help us identify patterns and analyze the factors that would significantly contribute to any conflicts. Our primary source of information and analysis was provided by the responses to the questionnaires.

The data was collected based on one-on-one interviews with students who were chosen randomly at Northeastern. Three members of our team approached over 60 teams on campus of which 40 agreed to be interviewed.We anticipated that teams would not want to take out of their focused time as a group, so we kept the questionnaire to seven questions which would take an average of two minutes to administer. As a team, each of us also answered the questionnaire to see how our responses would compare with those of other teams.

Our primary focus was to identify patterns in causes of conflict. Secondary was to analyze, albeit in less depth due to the nature of our project, how teams went about resolving their conflicts. Our research employed both quantitative and qualitative measures.The quantitative sources were the numbers of the teams who we interviewed and who shared their conflicts. From these 40 teams, we were able to analyze the nature of their conflicts and how the teams went about resolving their conflicts.

The qualitative sources are based on the open-ended questions in the questionnaire. Their candid responses were not only the source of data we compiled, but also gave us a glimpse of the ‘story’ behind some of the conflicts. We believe this contributed towards our research being more true to life, and hopefully more helpful to us as a team and for further study.All teams surveyed were short-term teams, between 4-10 weeks and had between 3-8 members. In addition, they were told that they and their responses will be kept anonymous. FINDINGS: We choose to highlight the four most significant causes of conflict in both our own team and in teams we surveyed based on the responses we collected. The causes of conflict in our own team were: a- the initial assumptions we made about one another, b- the skills and ability of each members were unclear, c- the knowledge each person had about the topic and expectations, and d- our communication was hindered due to language barriers.

In analyzing the data from our survey to 40 teams on campus, we found that for the most part, the top four causes of conflict were quite different from our own and included time management as a cause; one not listed in Levi. TABLES 1. 2 shows Levi’s causes of conflict and the significant difference in the top four reasons reported by our team members versus the causes of conflicts we surveyed. TABEL 1. 3 shows the breakdown in percentages for frequency of specific causes of conflict reported in the teams surveyed.

TABLE 1. 2 Causes of Conflict| ACT-V| Surveyed Teams| Different Value| | ? | Assumption| ? | Knowledge| ? | | Skills & Ability| ? | | The Way We Brought Up| | | Communication| ? | ? | Expectation| | ? | Time Management| | ? | TABLE 1. 3 Below are several examples and cases of what contributed to the more frequently reported causes in the teams we surveyed. The cases highlighted also reported how that particular team approached resolving their conflict. Communication Issues: Examples of conflicts caused by communication included: * Get everyone on the same page in terms of roles and responsibilities * Group decision and lack of agreement * Team members have too many different opinions People cannot understand each other’s ideas. Different values: Examples of conflicts caused by different values included: * People from different countries have different values and ways of expressing those values * There was much confusion about the acceptance of the ideas of other members An example of conflict caused by differing values was one particular team we surveyed who was to participate in a case study about the financial situation of a company. In the course of analyzing their data and presenting their conclusion, team members had different opinions and found it hard to convince and sway others to their own conclusions.This conflict of values, caused their team to become unstable and more arguments ensued.

One of the team members mentioned that they felt uncomfortable when she participates in meetings and senses a fair amount of negative emotion. In the end, they decided to use the method of voting to decide use which way to analysis the data and give the final conclusion. Another team we studied was made up of members from three cultures- American, Chinese and Japanese.

They were chose randomly by their professor at the first class and did not know one another beforehand. Their first team meeting was going well and everyone seemed to enjoy the new group.However, after several team meetings, the team members became polarized and grew into three independent sub-teams, each from the same country and sharing the same culture. Team members began to keep their discussion to those with their own backgrounds. Their team became more polarized and a lost a sense of healthy cohesion (Levi, 2011, pg. 84). As a solution to their conflict, they confronted their issue through open and direct discussion.

Each member then agreed to open communication across all team members. After several weeks, their become more efficient and grew closer as a unit.The open communication facilitated greater trust and social relations between members (Levi, 2011, pg) Time management Examples of conflicts caused by time management included: * Difficulty finding a time that works for everyone to meet up. * Difficulty to getting in touch with teammates.

* Some team members not attending the team meetings. Expectation Examples of conflicts caused by expectations between members included: * Input from all members; Some members have too many wrong ideas, but some members are quite and have no ideas. * Members coming to meetings prepared. * Equal distribution of tasks.One member of a team we surveyed was a student who worked for a local newspaper. He is part of a multi-cultural team including members from India, Russia and America. This team’s conflict was caused by the fact that team members, in addition to being students, are working as well. Their expectations were that others would cover their responsibilities when needed.

This caused increased frustration for those members who were picking up the slack for those who could not see to their roles. This team managed to resolve their conflict in their expectations of one another by building stronger personal relationships between one another.This facilitated a greater bond and trust, beyond just being teammates, which inspired each person to be more willing to take on greater responsibility when necessary without feeling resentful of others. TABLE 1. 4 below shows how teams went about finding solutions to their conflicts. Solutions range from avoidance- where members ignore or deny the issues in the hopes they will just go away, to collaboration- where both sides of the conflict are considered and the team cooperates to resolve the issues to the satisfaction of all members (Levi, pg 118-119)TABLE 1.

4 IMPLICATIONS ;amp; CONCLUSIONS: COLLECTIVE The process of our working together on a study on the nature of conflict in project-based teams was quite similar to an autobiographical journey. The very issues we were to research and study, were also issues we were experiencing as a newly formed group. Our result of the 40 teams we surveyed turned out to not fully support our hypothesis that what we were experiencing as team would be common of similar teams on campus. Although both we and the teams we surveyed reported collaboration as being he main approach to resolving their conflict, the nature of our conflicts compared to the patterns we surveyed were quite different. We seemed to have shared communications issues as a cause to conflict, but beyond that, we our experienced differed. Where most teams struggled with issues of time management, expectations and differing values as their most common issues, our causes of conflict revolved around the assumptions we made about one another, the knowledge of the task at hand, and whether we had the skills and ability to carry out our roles.Factors that can contribute to such a discrepancy in our findings could include: a- the fact that many teams did not have enough time to collaborate and further consider their responses as we only had a few minutes with each team, b- the multiple cultures that make up our team versus many of the teams being one main culture (even if that culture was a foreign one), c- the fact that our team had a very strong and experienced leader not commonly found in team on campus. But perhaps there is one more sublime factor that contributed to our team facing very different causes of conflict not commonly found in teams.

And that is the fact that we were studying conflict itself. Upon reflection as a working team, we too had many of the causes we studied in teams, especially differing values and expectations. However, early on we were assigned our topic on conflict. The very exercise of working together on this topic fed directly into our development as team. We found ourselves drawing upon the very topics we were researching and thus identifing the nature of our own conflicts; if they were healthy or not and how our options as to how to go about resolving our issues effectively. We became the very subjects of our own research.In this respect, our project was truly alive. Our class presentation was a transformative moment in our dynamic as a team.

In preparation for our presentation, we spent a significant amount of time outside the class. As Tuckman identifies (in Levi, 2011, pg. 40), we had the time and resolve to go the stages of group development to see each other’s qualities and how they can contribute to our team project. Further research that would be of interest would be to see if there are organizations that actually show how to identify, explain and resolve conflict as part of their initial development as a team.And if there is a correlation between addressing conflict before teams are forms and how effectively and cohesively those teams function over time. If conflict is not only normal and expected, but also be a tool for greater cohesion and synergy, then perhaps that most effect way to work through it, is to deal with it on day one as a team.


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