In complex organizations there is increased opportunity for conflict. We experience competing goals, multiple bosses, more diverse groups of colleagues and lack of face-to-face time. Any of these – and a host of other factors – can increase the possibility of misunderstandings and conflict.
But is this a problem? One of the oldest team building models – the Tuckman model has four stages:
Once we form a team and they start to work together, we often experience a ‘storm’ where an argument or other form of conflict breaks out. It is only by working through this storm and developing new norms (new ways of working or behaviours) that we can really go on and perform.
There is a lot of truth in this simple model. If we never surface differences and resolve them, we will never be able to work through them. Conflict is only constructive if it is subsequently resolved. If all we do is vent our anger but don’t resolve the underlying problems, then the conflict will re-occur – and this is not constructive.
Conflict in virtual and matrix organizations is not so easy to spot or to solve. When working together through technology it can be hard to see if someone is frustrated. The only sign that conflict is underway may be that people disengage from communication – a sudden fall off in the amount of responses to e-mails can, for example, be a clue.
It can also be difficult to raise and resolve conflict issues on a conference call or videoconference. It is an artificial environment for the expression of emotional cues, and inexperienced managers may be reluctant to allow conflict to arise, partly because they fear that they lack the skills to resolve it.
There can also be cultural challenges with some cultures more comfortable with the open expression of conflict than others. Individuals from cultures where conflict is not openly expressed may feel deeply uncomfortable.
So what is the answer?
We need to train leaders, in particular, with the skills to identify and resolve conflict in this complex environment – ideally before it becomes a major problem. We also need to build an environment in teams where individuals can flag up potential areas of conflict that they themselves are experiencing, or that they see in their colleagues.
The first step in resolving conflict is always to identify and flag it. We then need to understand an effective conflict sequence to take our team through to resolution.