Collaboration and Conflict

By Mark Mullay

We are social beings. It’s innate to our DNA. It is, arguably, how we got this far as a species. Our ability to establish trust is what enabled us to develop in social communities. The evolved portion of our brain—the cerebral cortex that makes us unique as a species—provides the essential tools required for perceiving the world, abstract reasoning and communicating. All of those wonderful, awesome, essential capabilities that allow us to engage in complex discussion, debate and discourse originate in the cerebral cortex. We are, quite literally, wired to interact.
So why is it so painful to collaborate in real life?

In theory, collaboration is not just something for which we are innately hard-wired; it’s also something that allows us to be more effective and more productive. Leveraging the insight and expertise of the many is viewed as more advantageous than the smartest of individuals working in isolation. We are able to draw on divergent insights, understanding, experience and knowledge. Different personalities and preferences, and different strengths and contributions, means that we should be able to produce more innovative and effective results.

The problem is that for the most part, it doesn’t actually work this way. By measures of creativity, for example, brainstorming exercises have long been thought to be more effective (in terms of the quality of results) and more productive (in terms of the number of ideas generated) in group environments. The reality, however, is that research conducted by Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe indicates that the same group working individually on their own will produce more ideas—and often better ones—than in a more traditional group brainstorming session.

A significant part of the challenge is that, in group environments, we seek safe answers that the entire group can accept. Even when groups are specifically built with diversity in mind, with the intent that they will bring varying perspectives and expertise to the table, they typically don’t. Rather than highlighting and focussing on what is unique to each person, groups instead quickly gravitate to lowest common denominator viewpoints.

Groups that limit effectiveness focus on information that everyone possesses from the start and can agree with. Worse, they focus on reaching consensus quickly—often treating finding a solution as a competitive goal. Most importantly, they avoid conflict. Where there are competing views or tensions, rather than exploring this there is more often a tendency to ignore and avoid. The group will stay in safe and uncontentious territory, rather than wading in and exploring why there are differences.

How conflict is handled has a great deal to do with how groups do and don’t work. Most of us dislike and are intensely uncomfortable when conflict surfaces. There is frequently a strong desire to minimize it, make it go away and avoid it whenever possible. We see conflict as counterproductive and disruptive, and will often go out of our way to smooth over differences and avoid situations where it might emerge.

At the same time, conflict can be incredibly useful. The differences in viewpoints, backgrounds and expertise that are theoretically so valuable in groups are also the basis for conflict emerging. Differences are helpful and valuable in broadening understanding and providing perspective. The challenge is when differences prevent agreement rather than contribute to it.

Conflict is a barrier not only because we don’t like it, but also because there are different kinds of conflict that emerge for different reasons. Relationship conflict exists at a relational or emotional level. It is a response to behaviours, approaches or stylistic tendencies in others that we react negatively to. When someone “rubs us the wrong way,” we are experiencing relationship conflict. This could be because they are dominating the conversation, don’t connect with us in a way that we value, talk over other people or otherwise engage in behaviours that we dislike and resent. Our conflict is associated with the person, their approach and our relationship with them.

A different form of conflict that emerges is task conflict. Task conflict has less to do with the attitudes or behaviours of people we are dealing with, and everything to do with the job at hand. Task conflict emerges when there are conflicts over goals, disagreement over the problem being solved or different viewpoints of the strategy to be employed in solving the problem. When people have different views of the problem or argue over the best solution, we are experiencing task conflict.

A common view is that we should “be hard on the problem and not on the person.” That would imply emphasizing task conflict, and downplaying relationship conflict. Interestingly, both types of conflict can be useful if appropriately managed. Relationship conflict has been demonstrated to improve creativity amongst those that have a relational emphasis in how they approach situations. Their focus on people and valuing of relationships means that they attempt to manage and defuse the conflict. To do so, they will often work to identify creative and effective strategies that bridge the gap.

Task conflict is also demonstrated to enhance creativity. Particularly for those who tend toward independence, there is an emphasis on persistence and follow-through in problem solving that drives them to strive for the best possible solution. Provided the problem-solving process is not shut down or short-circuited too early, this form of conflict can also be effective in specific situations and contexts.

The key for both types of conflict is that they are a product of individual preferences and styles. They work for some people, and not with others. Given that groups are typically made up of a range of styles, both forms of conflict are likely to be relevant for some of the group, and not for others. What is essential is recognizing differences in preference and influence, and allowing for both types where it is appropriate to do so.

The issue of appropriateness, though, is essential in managing conflict in groups. Research into group dynamics and what makes an effective team environment has long tried to identify the magic structure, composition or approach that allows teams to be effective. Until recently, there were few insights that truly made a difference in enhancing team effectiveness and collaboration.

One of the most useful—and also most controversial—insights came out of a study conducted a few years ago. What influenced group effectiveness had nothing to do with the actual makeup of the groups involved in problem-solving scenarios. The highest individual intelligence, the average intelligence of members within groups and the underlying personality preferences had no influence. What did make a difference came down to three fundamental factors: the average social sensitivity of members of the group, the degree to which group members took turns in conversation and the number of female group members:

  • Social sensitivity is all about how we are aware of others, and the degree to which we have an understanding of what they are thinking and how they are reacting to the situation around them. In other words, it’s about empathy. Social sensitivity involves caring about and having an awareness of how others are reacting in the moment. The greater the degree to which group members maintain sensitivity to the reactions and responses of the group, the more effective the group.
  • Group participation was also a significant factor in group dynamics, and the degree to which groups were effective. Where all members of the group contributed, and there was a relatively equal level of participation by all group members, groups tended to produce better results. Where one or a small number of people dominated the conversation, and others were excluded or chose not to participate, the groups performed less effectively.
  • The third factor was an interesting one, and one that the researchers were actually quite uncomfortable with at the outset. The one factor in group composition that did make a difference in problem solving was in found where groups that had a larger number of female participants. The more women, the more effective the results. In subsequent analysis, the researchers suggested that this finding was essentially “doubling down” on social sensitivity, the first factor in the findings. Separate research has demonstrated that women tend to be more socially sensitive, and the same results were observed in the study.

Collaboration can be effective, useful and relevant in solving problems, developing strategies and optimizing solutions. What is intriguing and challenging is that, by default and left to their own devices, there is a high likelihood that groups will produce sub-optimal results. Ultimately, effective collaboration is a result of the degree to which we constructively approach conflict, and we constructively approach each other.

The important and critical insight is that effective collaboration is largely a result less of makeup and composition, and is more one of process. What ultimately determines group effectiveness is the degree to which people feel listened to, are comfortable contributing and feel that they are being heard. Ensuring people equally participate and contribute has everything to do with how meetings are run, and the norms that are adopted when collaborating with others. While social sensitivity can be more developed in some people than in others, it is also possible—and critical—to design group processes that check in and test how people are feeling about the process and results of the group.

By being sensitive to conflict, sensitive to team members and sensitive to process, we can get a great deal more done in groups. Doing so is first a product of conscious intent, and secondly a result of putting in place the norms and expectations that allow groups to collaborate effectively and produce better results. We need to establish the expectation that differences are valued, different viewpoints and perspectives are needed and that having different views and different approaches are the basis of developing creative solutions. We also need to establish norms and guidelines for how groups operate that ensure participation, maintain awareness of how people are feeling about the process and the result, and that reinforces everyone contributes equally to the discussion.

Collaboration can be hard, but it genuinely doesn’t have to be. Good collaboration is at its core a result of design, effort and focus. We have the tools, the capacity and the evolutionary abilities to collaborate well; we just need to care enough to make it happen.

Source: Project Management Institute

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