Why talk about something as revolting as conflict? It only inflicts pain and suffering. While writing this, I remember my loneliness when I experienced conflict in a community. Not speaking up - there and now - would have been easier.
The article isn’t an overly sentimental discussion about types of conflicts. I took the (emotionally) easy route and framed the piece using my scientific knowledge of teams and disputes: Disagreements on what the task is and how to accomplish it are safe. Arguments about the accepted behavioral norms and values community members should live by also need to happen. Just remember that an objection to your position is not an attack on who you are.
The two general types of conflict: Task and relationship
Conflict in communities is usually about the task (what to do and how to do it) or the person (personality, attitudes). Of course, sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.
Task conflict happens when people have different ideas of what needs to be done. It points to potential differences in opinion about everything you can imagine is essential for a group: mission, its values, priorities of tasks, best tools, compensation mechanism, how to coordinate people, decision-making mechanisms, etc.
Task conflict is not a problem. Or better said: Task conflict is not a problem when people realize that the source of the conflict is the task and not the people. Community members must resolve tension inclusively with everyone’s voice being heard and acknowledged. Conflict resolution, of course, takes empathy and emotional intelligence. However, this does not mean that the solution must include everyone’s opinion (too many cooks spoil the soup). After the conversation (which can last several days or even spread over weeks and months), everyone should feel that they had a fair chance to express their opinion and that it was taken seriously by others and not brushed off the table.
Conflict between people is ugly. It’s ugly because it’s attacking a person's essence and self-worth. Often this form of conflict, relationship conflict, is triggered when two conditions are met: First, people have different values or are holding different assumptions, and secondly, neither party can see beyond their own biases. In short: everyone involved n the party believes that they are right and are unwilling to change their position.
With relationship conflict, the person is perceived to be the problem and is being attacked by others. Each party assumes that most people are on their side (false consensus belief) and that the other person is acting out of self-interest (naïve realism). This culminates in people disagreeing with each other, not for the task's sake but to prove the other person is wrong. This can lead to people’s reputations being destroyed.
How to distinguish task conflict from relationship conflict?
Do you remember the last disagreement you had with a colleague? It might have been a heated discussion or a fury of messages with angry emojis 😡 Now, can you trace the origin of this argument?
Task conflict (what work should be prioritized) turns into a relationship conflict the second people make silent (unspoken) attribution about someone.
Sometimes conflict originates in a task. People might prefer different tools or different approaches. If this initial dispute is ignored or not dealt with appropriately, the relatively easy task conflict morphs into a more complex relationship conflict. A lot of what happens when relationship conflict plays out is reactive and not reflective. People stop thinking and act impulsively.
Anna believes that tasks 1 and 2 are not a priority and works on task 3.
Carla needs to complete task 4 but can’t do so before task 2 is done. But task 2 doesn’t get done because it’s not a priority for Anna.
What is happening
Anna does not communicate that tasks 1 and 2 are not a priority for her.
Carla assumes that Anna knows that task 2 needs to get done for her to do her work.
What Anna and Carla are thinking
Carla starts thinking:
- Anna is lazy and can’t manage her time properly
- Anna wants to make her look bad
Anna starts thinking:
- Carla wants to control her time and is overstepping her role.
- Carla can just do something else until task 2 is done.
What do you think Anna and Carla will do?
I want to highlight two factors that create conflicts in teams: Belonging and leadership. The first, belonging, relates to differences in voices. Two paths diverge: task conflict occurs if this variety is acknowledged. However, the community will have to deal with relationship conflict if certain voices are ignored.
The second catalyst of conflict, leadership, addresses issues of coordination. While this begins with task conflict, it will turn into relationship conflict if not worked properly.
Lack of belonging
Conflict can arise between community members when (un)consciously certain voices are excluded. Every community has its own mission and values. Not everyone will agree with them, and that is fine. This is why a community has a mission and purpose, to target specific people and clarify to community members and non-members the group's aim. My phone was buzzing non-stop a couple of weeks ago with parents discussing what the group “Hikes with kids” was really about. The conflict focused on the task (defining the community’s purpose). The final decision was to create a second group, “Things to do with Kids,” with less restrictive guidelines on what can be shared.
However, while community members agree with its mission and purpose, members are not identical clones. They do not just look different but also hold diverse values and have their own unique lived experience they bring into the community.
If certain types of voices are ignored, the affected people feel like they do not belong in this community: No space is created for them. Belonging is about feeling that you are part of the community and should be “there.” Creating a sense of belonging happens when people develop relationships, and a form of collective intelligence and identity is forming.
Conflict arising due to a lack of belonging can take many forms:
- Repeatedly ignored: While you can not expect that not every idea gathers interest from others, a frequent wall of silence speaks volumes. Being ignored signals that your opinion is not consequential to the community. However, this bitter feeling of not being heard is accentuated when someone else repeats your idea and receives attention and credit. Such behavior highlights that your idea is valuable for the community, but you are not.
- Lack of recognition: Everyone has different skills and energy levels. A task might be easy for you, but someone else might struggle. Not recognizing what someone puts into their work, is stating that their effort isn’t worth anything.
- Token tasks: Being assigned a job because it suits your gender or ethnicity is belittling. Not every woman is good at mentoring a young person (being a mother), and not every member of a marginalized group wants to lead diversity and inclusion initiatives.
- Laughing at some: We teach kids to not make fun of how someone looks or talks. It decreases a person’s sense of self-worth.
- Discrediting experiences: Every community has its own jokes and sense of humor. But brushing away someone’s concern as ‘not relevant’ or making fun of a person’s opinion or experiences excludes them.
- Inaccessible conversations: If conversations are full of references and jargon, only specific people, the in-crowd, can follow. Accessibility also refers to how the meeting happens and what tools are used.
A clash of values or a lack of understanding of other community members is the catalyst for belonging conflict. There are no shortcuts to spending time with each other and becoming familiar. If you need to achieve familiarity and belonging between strangers in a short time, try dancing, singing, or laughing together (but not at someone).
If you don’t try to understand others, you can’t include them.
Conflict leaders create
Leadership is another source of conflict. Leadership is broadly defined as the influence someone has over another person in terms of motivating them into action. In communities, leadership can be assigned to a person, someone can take up a leadership role, or it can be distributed among people based on their expertise or time commitment.
When a community aims to work together (e.g., update the community’s website), people and tasks need to be coordinated. It is the role of leader(s) to coordinate people and work so that the project aim is achieved. And this is the step where conflict can arise. Most of these conflicts will be related to the task (when to do what using what tools and processes)
- Unfair task distribution: People might think they are getting assigned too many tasks or that another person is grabbing all the exciting and impactful stuff disproportionately. Important to note is that fairness is in the eye of the beholder. All parents can attest to that: What we (parents) find fair doesn’t have to be fair in our kids' eyes. It’s the same among community members: One fairness might be another person’s injustice.
- Unclear tasks: In some communities, tasks are assigned to people. In others, community members can pick what they do. In each case, ambiguous tasks are a source of conflict. Primarily if they are assigned to you. Even more so if the community has a low tolerance for risks or mistakes or a controlling leader. Task ambiguity alone isn’t an issue if people have the freedom to define and elaborate on the task or if they can have an open conversation with the task leader to achieve clarity.
- A too long chain of interaction: Often, very long interaction chains happen in communities that are very structured or use a lot of private channels. An interaction chain is a series of 1:1 conversations where every conversation is with one new person, like the kid's game telephone. Over time information gets distorted, and gibberish comes out at the end. Long interaction chains in communities run the same danger of information distortion.
- Leaders as bottlenecks: Leaders who want to control too much, be part of too many conversations, and be involved in all decisions are just - plainly - annoying. They are not giving people the space to develop themselves and the community and are extinguishing every spark of innovation.
Finally, remember that every culture has its own way of handling conflict. Some people consider it dishonest if a dispute is not addressed openly, while in other cultures, such a discussion will not be acceptable. In all just boils down to
Don't assume that everyone is thinking as you do
Thank you to the Foster collective for improving the article. Your comments helped me shape my ideas and clarify my thoughts.