Team work is commonplace in companies today. It involves several people working together towards a common goal or to get a particular task done. Due to the nature of several heads working together with their different personalities, backgrounds and attitudes it can result in differing opinions or expectations among the team members. This difference of opinion is termed conflict. Alessandra (1993, p92) believes
“Conflict arises from the clash of perceptions, goals or values in an arena where people care about the outcome”. Conflict itself can be defined as
“the result of incompatible potential relationships. The process begins when one party perceives that another party has impeded, or will frustrate, one or more of its concerns” (Gordon, 1991).
The traditional view of conflict is that it is not good for an organisation and should be avoided. However, the modern understanding is that it is neither good nor bad but is inevitable.
Robbins (1998) identifies two types of conflict – functional and dysfunctional. He suggests that if the objectives of the organisation are furthered, it is classed as functional conflict.
“Functional conflict is at a level that enables a group to maximise its performance, and the outcomes are desirable.” (chumans.com/skills3.htm)
Achieve Mentors (2002) believe that “functional conflict is not only good – but necessary”. users.dickinson.edu states that consequences of functional conflict are: increased problem awareness, increased self- and other awareness, increased exchange of information and knowledge, improved decision processes, increased innovativeness and creativity, enhanced motivation and morale, decreased tensions, enhanced psychological maturity. It goes on to say that dysfunctional conflict leads to a reduction in organisational performance due to increased stress and burnout, reduced morale and job satisfaction, reduced loyalty to organisation and wastage of time and resources.
The author has been involved in a number of teams whilst at university and in the workplace. While participating in these teams, both functional and dysfunctional conflict has been experienced. These will be evaluated in detail looking firstly at examples of dysfunctional conflict and then assessing the positive results in functional conflict.
Not many cases of dysfunctional conflict have been experiences. One case of particular remembrance was a group discussion in an assessment centre interview. The group was given a topic to talk about but the debate drifted away from the original point so the author tried to move the conversation back in line with the task. However, other members of the group ignored this and continued with their argument. The author tried again but was unsuccessful on the second attempt also. The timed discussion session ended and the author felt that the outcome of the discussion was not satisfactory as the group had not discussed the given topic. It is believed that due to the significance of the task, no-one wanted to be dominated or directed.
The author has also experienced dysfunctional conflict within the workplace. Following a company restructure and some redundancies, the author was part of a new team created to fulfil some of the tasks that were completed by a disbanded team. The new team and old team (many of whom were made redundant) were temporarily merged to handover duties and find ways of improving activities. This obviously caused a great deal of anger and upset amongst staff that had been made redundant and caused an awkward situation. The new team members were as tolerant and understanding as possible but the strong emotions held by the existing team made it very uncomfortable and difficult to take over the job with a full understanding of all processes involved.
Conversely, the author has had several experiences of functional conflict where the end results have been positive. One example was working in a small team at university. The conflict arose from the inability of the team to make decisions. There were six people in the group with a goal of performing a work role-play situation. Many suggestions were made as to the subject and several conversations took place at once. It was very difficult to reach an agreement at first and many disputes took place with no one in control. As Thomson (2002) accurately describes there can be a feeling of not getting anywhere possibly resulting in squabbling between individuals. However, at this stage the group quickly realised the problems being faced and one member was elected as group leader and key spokesperson. This solved the initial problems faced and all ideas were put forward to the leader with everyone voting on decisions. This resulted in every member of the group having an opportunity to put forward their ideas and there was a sense of fairness in all decisions taken.
Another experience of a functional group conflict, again at university, was a group of seven made up to give weekly presentations on a given company. This was a self selected team and all team members had similar attitudes and goals. However, conflict occurred as research was conducted independently and resulted in people having different knowledge levels. There were cases of team members conducting the same research and on some occasions different findings being discovered, and this lead to frustration and disagreements over certain pieces of information. The different knowledge level was also a serious cause of conflict as some members became upset that all information wasn’t shared. However, to overcome this we held regular meetings and discussed all information we had learnt in-between times so all members were fully informed and up-to-date of key findings. Meeting frequently together as a group allowed full communication to take place between members and also ensured everyone was fully aware and up-to-date with all information and work that had been completed by other people.
Another case of functional conflict that the author has experienced working in university groups is that caused by lack of attendance at meetings and differing input levels by individuals. This has been true particularly in pre-assigned groups where members are not familiar with the standard of work of others. It is quite often the case that group meetings will be organised and arranged at times that all members can make but one or more individuals will fail to turn up without warning or an apology. In addition to this, some members put a great deal of effort into their work in the hope of achieving a higher grade. However, other members will do minimal work in order to achieve a pass and nothing more. This is very frustrating for other group members and demotivating for them. However, it has been possible to inform lecturers about the performance of particular team members if their input has not been satisfactory to reflect in their grade and this has helped reunite the rest of the group. The conflict is caused by differing goals and values of the group members and results in a hostile group and a sense of resentment held by those working hard against those giving little or no effort. However, this has been easily resolved by reporting those not contributing and allowing the team to reunite.
The author has also experienced some inter-group conflict when working in competitive teams. A specific example of this was during the induction process starting in a new company. There were two teams of six new recruits and a number of team games and assessments were played. However, as the activities were undertaken, both teams became more and more competitive and using several tactics to try and win games including cheating and exaggerating points. During the induction process this was a form of functional conflict as it allowed the team members to be creative come fully integrated within the team and also bond with the other team members. However, in the workplace, inter-group conflict can be detrimental if it continues in the long-term and the conflict would be termed dysfunctional if teams end up fighting over resources or trying to eliminate the rival group.
In conclusion, conflict is an unavoidable outcome of working in groups and it has been said “Conflict is a way of life” (Achieve Mentors, 2002). However, conflict should not be viewed solely as a negative consequence as there are positive and desirable effects. Functional conflict supports the goals of a group and will benefit an organisation through the proposal and evaluation of new directions and strategies and the suggestion and challenge of original ideas and initiatives (Holpp, 1999, p82). Ellis and Dick (2000, p92) agree: “Some level of conflict is normally considered to be a healthy way of ensuring creativity and innovation and preventing the group becoming stale.” However, dysfunctional conflict should seek to be reduced and eliminated as it has a destructive result on an organisation, its employees and relationships between staff. The end can be a focus to resolve the conflict rather than solve the issue set out to achieve. Therefore, serious conflicts should be identified and resolved as early as possible to prevent the possible detrimental effects it can have on a team.
How would you respond to a manager who made the following statement: ‘When it comes to the size of work groups, the bigger the better’?
A group can be defined as a collection of people who share characteristics including a definable membership, group consciousness, a sense of shared purpose, interdependence, interaction and the ability to act in a unitary manner (Adair, 1986). Holpp (1999, p3) believes, groups are “people working together toward specific objectives within a defined operational sphere. Team and group work is the norm and indeed vital for companies operating in today’s business environment. Mullins (1996) states that work groups are essential to achieve a high standard of work and improve organisational effectiveness. It is believed that individuals will be more productive and creative in a group as they are able to bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm. The question of the size of a group that should work together is very important when dealing with organisational teams.
The theory of synergy where 2+2=5 is obviously the thought here, with the manager believing that two heads are better than one. Indeed, research by Laughlin et al (2006) has proven that groups of three to five people are more effective at problem solving than individuals working alone. It is assumed in the manager’s statement that the greater the number of people working together, the better the performance and output from that team. However, the author would argue against this point and say that the bigger the team is not necessarily for the better.
There are two conflicting opinions regarding the number of people a group should be made up of. One belief is that with a larger number of participants, “the greater is the pool of talent and experience available for solving problems or sharing the effort” (brookes.ac.uk). However, it goes on to say that “as the size increases, fewer members have the chance to participate” and it is likely that one or two members will dominate the group and quieter, more reserved members will not contribute.
Certainly one person cannot make up a group as by its definition, more people are required. With just two people, there is the potential for disagreement with both having 50% of the vote so a group should be larger than this. The author would maintain that three is the minimum number of individuals that a group should contain but would also state that this does not mean it can be any number upwards of three as there is an upper limit on the number before the group gets too large and out-of-hand and possibly out-of-control.
In smaller groups, close relationships are likely to be formed due to the proximity of working. This bonding is very beneficial as group members will have a better understanding and therefore tolerance of each other and are more likely to work better as a team. It is also more likely that members will share the same aims and give full participation – obviously another positive point. Huczynski and Buchanan (1991) state that smaller groups provide an opportunity to fully interact as there are a manageable number of people to communicate with. This in turn facilitates the free flow of information and can also present relaxed setting which makes for a pleasant working environment.
Large groups provide diversity of opinions and background and resources to get the job done (wcer.wisc.edu). Larger groups have more disposable resources in terms of group members but these members are likely to have a limited influence individually although more ideas might be generated. Large groups necessitate a formal communication process and bureaucratic practices. Handy (1993) suggests that “the larger the group, the greater the diversity of talent, skills and knowledge” but that individuals are less likely to participate. This is because more reticent members can remain quiet and hide behind more outspoken members of the group. It can be common in larger groups for sub-groups to be formed. Also with larger groups, it becomes increasingly difficult to schedule meetings due to conflicting work requirements and demands on other projects. Large groups make management of the communication process more difficult and can end up reducing group effectiveness. The best ideas may never even be heard (intuitor.com). Thomson (2002, p108) states that groups with 20 or more members often experience a high level of absenteeism and low morale.
For an idea generating or a brainstorming activity, where it is useful to combine the efforts of a number of people, a larger group is more advantageous. One person will come up with an idea and this might prompt someone else to add to this and it can initiate a whole series of ideas that progress the initial suggestion on to a much improved version or solution. Therefore, it could be said that the more people involved, the greater the likelihood of generating more ideas. However, there is a point at which there will be too many people to have a proper discussion due to not people splitting into sub-groups and conversing within smaller numbers or perhaps not being able to hear all of what is being said. There have been many studies into the optimum size of a group and the majority of theorists, researchers and practitioners agree on the best groups consisting of between five and eight people. Thomson (2002p180) quotes seven or eight as the ideal and numbers should not exceed 12. Six is quoted as the optimum size for full participation within the group by Handy (1993). It is true to say that a group’s performance will depend on the individual’s that make up the team. Belbin (1993) has identified a number of team roles that individuals might adopt in a group situation. These and other personality traits need to be considered as people join the group as it would not be sensible to have a large number of dominant leaders in a group as these is likely to lead to conflict and a possible break-down of the group. Therefore, it is suggested that instead of assuming more people in a group is better, the manager needs to assess the size of the task. If it is a large and complex undertaking and a considerable number of people are likely to be needed, it would be advisable to sub-group these members. This would involve selecting the individuals that are wanted for the group, review their personality and split these individuals into a number of sub-groups consisting of five to eight people. Care should be taken to ensure several dominant people are not placed in the same group but are spread through the sub-groups. One leader should be nominated as head of each sub-group who can then liaise with other leaders. These leaders can meet separately and share ideas and information. Using this process will ensure communication flows freely amongst all members of the entire group and everyone is able to participate. It combines the positive aspects of easy communication and interaction of small teams with the benefits of a wide range of members while also overcoming the problems associated with large groups.
In conclusion therefore, the author would argue against the manager’s statement that larger work groups are better and say that this is not necessarily accurate. In fact, if a group becomes too large, there will be a lack of control and it is likely to fail the task it was set. The size of the group is dependent on a number of factors which are unique for all situations. Overall, it has been suggested that the size of a work group should be directly related to the nature of the task at hand and it should not just be assumed that the greater the number of people, the better or faster the task will be achieved. There are optimum sizes of all groups and these depend on a number of factors, such as, the complexity of the task, the logistics and the communication channels within the group. A full consideration will need to be made of the size of the task at hand, the length of time the group will stay together, the group’s aims and that sufficient people are present to generate sufficient ideas and for the team to still function if one or two members are absent.
The author would dispute the statement made by the manager saying that the group should consist of between five and seven people. This ensures that the group is not so small that insufficient ideas are formed. It also overcomes the problems associated with large groups of communication troubles. If a task is too big or multifaceted for this number of people, several sub-groups of five to seven members should be created. Whatever the may be the case, the author disagrees with the statement that the bigger, the better.