Study Examines Triggering Behaviors of Group Relationship Conflict; Suggests Methods of Resolution - Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

November 25, 2019by Noah Shaw

Summary of:

Udayan, D., (2019). Avoid or engage? Issues of relationship conflict in project teams. SIMSARC 2018.

Background & Theory:

Task-oriented conflict is generally known to be constructive for groups in the workplace because it brings about a means of creating and evaluating ideas. However, relationship conflict in the workplace can often be destructive due to personality, value, and attitudinal differences in high-interaction environments. This article examines the behavioral triggers of relationship conflict within workplace conflicts in relation to task-oriented conflict and considers potential systems of conflict management that could be applied for resolution.


Research was compiled to answer the following questions:

1. What are the behavioral triggers of relationship conflict in the workplace?
2. What tactics are available to potentially reduce or resolve relationship conflict?


The methodology of this research primarily consisted of searching through 1500 relevant past-studies and compiling them. These articles were discovered through the Scopus database and Google’s database using appropriate keywords. After a relevancy and screening process, it was deemed that 110 articles were relevant enough to be included. The resulting articles were then compiled by theme into a list which included: impact of relationship compared to task conflict, interdependence of task and relationship conflict, antecedents of relationship conflict, the role of leadership in relationship conflict, effect of conflict management style in relationship conflict, processes of team conflict resolution, the all-pervading role of trust, and models of team conflict resolution.


After compiling the data into the themes listed above, a number of insights can be taken away per each theme:

Impact of relationship compared to task conflict – First, it was found that relationship conflict was more negatively correlated with team performance than task conflict. While both relational and task conflict increase avoidance, decrease compromise, and decrease confidence, relational conflict additionally decreased self-devotion, organizational relations, and cooperation.

Interdependence of task and relationship conflict – Interestingly, it was found that task conflict can evolve into relational conflict when groups have inefficient regulatory emotion processes. On the other hand, studies showed that relational conflict could lead to increased task conflict via adversarial group behavior.

Antecedents of relationship conflict – Antecedents of relationship conflict, which can predispose groups to conflict, include diversity, member personality, lack of team psychological safety, and lack of team behavioral integration.

The role of leadership in relationship conflict – It was found that some leadership styles and behaviors including having high power needs, a transformational style, a proactive approach, and conflict avoidant behaviors, contributed negatively to relationship conflict. Contrarily, having a pragmatic rather than charismatic leadership style had a positive and effective impact on relationship conflict.

Effect of conflict management style in relationship conflict – Using the Thomas-Kilmann conflict management assessment, it was found that collaborating and competing styles negatively impacted team function. Surprisingly, the avoiding style allowed for higher team functioning and effectiveness, suggesting that these avoiding responses are functional and give members the ability to pursue task performance.

Processes of team conflict resolution – Workplace groups that maintained high performance shared the key characteristics of keeping focus on the content of personal interactions over delivery style, comprehensively discussing the reasons behind the distribution of work, and assigning work to group members based off of expertise. It was also found that teams who start with high relationship conflict have an opportunity to rebound by reevaluating adverse events and subsequently overcoming negative conflict-driven individual and group patterns.

The all-pervading role of trust – Past studies shared an overwhelming emphasis on the effectiveness of trust in creating healthy group work environments.

Models of team conflict resolution – There are a number of models that are suggested by past studies to resolve general workplace conflict and relationship conflict. These models include:

  • Alternative dispute resolution model: a model that uses facilitation, negotiation, mediation, and the use of an ombudsman to resolve disputes
  • Team mediation system: a model that enables parties to understand each other’s similarities and differences through a “confront-listen-acknowledge-respond-commit” process
  • Integrated conflict management system: a model that is used primarily in the United States to resolve conflicts in their early stages to save money
  • Conflict dynamics profile: a model that helps employees identify personal triggers of conflict behavior and helps overcome these triggers to improve the work environment

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this study, we can take away these key insights:

  • Relationship conflict and task-oriented conflict are different from one another and can lead to serious problems for group members and group goals if not handled well. Recognizing the difference between the two is important.
  • There are a lot of factors that make up a relationship conflict and there are a great number of consequences if the conflict is not addressed. Because of this, there is good reason to preventively establish measures of addressing and resolving conflict in group environments. This can include training employees on the fundamentals of emotional intelligence, helping group members understand their conflict styles, giving opportunities for group members to establish trust with one another, and teaching group members models of conflict resolution.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: A consultant who is challenged with resolving a relationship conflict should address it pragmatically, with clarity, and with a designated system of resolving the conflict. However, equally important to resolving the relationship conflict is the step of establishing systems and measures for dealing with future conflict for the group and making group members aware of what can cause relationship conflict.

For Everyone: Recognizing how relationship conflict may be affecting your work environment is paramount to improving your work life. It may be helpful to consider your own conflict management style in these situations and find ways of addressing the conflict so that healthy group dynamics can become a reality.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.

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