Problems with Perceptions of Team Conflict

What?

A recent experience of mine highlights an interesting aspect of approaching conflict within teams. As part of one of my classes we had to complete a simulation that involved two parties of people, the “managers” and the “employees”. Each person at the beginning of class person gave a dollar as their buy into the game. Each group was given different instructions, separately so that they did not know each others instructions. The employees were told that if they moved seats they would not get their dollar back. The managers were told that they had to arrange the people by seat number (which required them to move) and that if they were successful they would be given the money plus fifteen extra dollars to distribute amongst everybody. They then had twenty minutes to complete the assignment. The managers failed to get the employees to move meaning that the employees got only their dollar back.

So What?

The thing that stuck out to me the most was the fact that those that came into the situation with the idea that they were going to protect themselves and get out exactly what they put in got just that and no more. Those that main goal was getting their dollar back fought for that and did not see the potential of gaining something. They saw the situation as a win-lose situation and were intent on what they perceived as winning. There was potential for everybody to come out better off but they did not see that potential due to their perceptions. There is potential for this type of situation to develop in any team that gets into conflict over an issue (which is almost guaranteed to happen when dealing with teams). People will shape their perceptions based on past experiences with team conflict. These can be good or they can be bad. If their experiences with team conflict in the past that the team was able to work through and come out with a positive solution will have positive outlook when faced with conflict. However if they have had bad experiences they will be more likely to come in defensive and not willing to work together.

Now What?

When we are in a team we need to be aware of where people are coming from and their perceptions of team conflict. This can be done through asking people about their previous experiences, though this method does not always work, but more often this will be done through observation. As the team works together you can observe the way that each person interacts with the others and things that they say. Through this observation you can learn what their perceptions and feelings are. The next step is to try overcome wrong perceptions and improve the way that the team works through conflict. This step can be done through addressing the issue directly, such as giving examples of conflict that was handled appropriately, or through more indirect methods to slowly change their perceptions. This overcoming previous perceptions of team conflict can be hard and take time, but will strengthen the team and result in a better product or solution.

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