Tech Talk Live Blog

How to Deal with Team Conflict in Your IT Department

Jessica Diller

Individuals hear the word “conflict” and automatically assume that it is a negative process that must be avoided. That it indicates a malfunction within your team. While there are many instances when this may be true, conflict in your IT department can be a positive experience that will keep your team viable, self-critical, and creative.

First let’s define conflict. Conflict, as defined in Organizational Behavior, is a process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affect, something the first party cares about.  Most often in IT departments, conflict arises when there are incompatibility of goals, differences over interpretations of facts, disagreements on expectations and priorities, and the attitude that one team might pull more weight than the other.

Traditionally in an IT department, non-cross functional teams are created as there are separation of duties.  You typically have a management, network, system, application, and desktop support team.  Sometimes they are further broken apart by level I, II, III, and so on.  This inherently creates conflicts within teams and conflicts between teams.

The traditional views of conflict, as studied is group behavior, sees conflict as dysfunctional. More recent studies shows that functional conflict can be a constructive form of conflict. So what is “functional conflict”? It is conflict that supports the goals of the group and improves its performance.

So how do you get functional conflict vs dysfunctional conflict?  Typically there are three categories of conflict:

  1. Task conflict – the content and goals of the work,
  2. Relationship conflict – the interpersonal relationships, and
  3. Process conflict – how the work gets done.

To understand the type of conflict that exists, you must first identify where the conflict occurs. Typically, conflict that centers on a task or a process can become a functional conflict. Relationship conflicts by nature are more of a dysfunctional conflict and should be handled accordingly.

As a manager you must first recognize that in some situations conflict can be beneficial. By managing conflict to become functional as opposed to dysfunctional, you can encourage your team to challenge the system and develop fresh ideas.

  1. Encourage conflict. Address it and explain how conflict, but most important conflict resolution, can be productive to a process.
  2. Recognize when there really is a disagreement, and encourage open discussion focused on interests rather than issues. Have opposing teams pick parts of the solution that are most important to them, and then focus on how each side can get its top needs satisfied.
  3. Emphasize shared interests in resolving conflicts.
  4. Communicate your logic when possible to make certain employees remain engaged and productive.
  5. Seek integrative solutions when the object is to merge insights from individuals.
  6. Avoid trivial or symptomatic issues when more important issues are pressing.
  7. Use integrative bargaining to negotiate with employees, peers, and bosses. When managing a team over whom you have no direct authority or share a common boss, negotiation skill are critical.

This of course is a condensed version of a much larger topic involving many areas of team dynamics and human behavior.  The key point is to challenge your thinking about conflict and how conflict is managed within your IT teams.  Instead of focusing your efforts into looking for ways to avoid conflict, learn to embrace conflict and find productive ways for conflict resolution.  This will have a great impact on the teams you are directly managing and how they collaborate and the outcomes of your IT projects.

Reference:  Robbins, Stephen P. (2015). Organizational Behavior (16th Edition); New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

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