In a rapidly-paced organisational environment, conflicts and disagreements occur on a regular basis, and this is not necessarily linked to negative outcomes. In many cases, conflicts can help improve team collaboration and the development of positive solutions. As ideas are shared between workers, priorities and responsibilities are distributed and established, occasional disruptions within the process can take place. In project teams, addressing conflicts is essential not only for fostering a positive environment in the workplace but also for developing solutions to arising challenges. The purpose of the current exploration is discussing the cases of internal and external conflicts in a project team, with a special focus on the engineering context.
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In general, the concept of a conflict refers to a serious disagreement, which can take place within an individual’s external or internal struggle. Conflicts represent a form of clash or friction between the members of a group who may be either supported or resisted by other members. Such disagreements can take place in cases when stress, facts, ambitions or other variables that make it easier for group members to get pushed against one another. In project teams, conflicts should be recognised and accepted since they are natural and usually concern whole groups of people
Diversity as a Challenge
The project team environment in an engineering context is unique due to the range of variables that contribute to its shaping. The diversity trend is increasing in workplaces, and the collaborative nature of engineering projects requires employees to provide long-term engagement of both local and international specialists (Hamedani 3). Therefore, the specific nature of engineering projects can have a negative effect on both communication and collaboration of co-workers (Cobos). In addition, the multicultural nature of engineering workplaces has presented challenging environments in the work culture of many technology-oriented organisations.
Noting the diversity of engineering companies is essential to understand the reasons for different types of conflicts. Cultural variations are especially important because the differences in social conflicts can serve as reasons for increased interpersonal conflicts (Hamedani 3). Diversity is associated with the differences in groups members goals and opinions as well as how they perceive conflicts overall. In regards to variability in emotions or values, relationship conflict arises. Thus, in their everyday interactions, workers from engineering companies will inevitably encounter interpersonal conflicts which are characterised by the lack of unity in opinions and desires.
Diversity as a concept has been closely linked to the heterogeneity of a group of workers, as it is directly concerned with the differences in individuals’ attributes. One of the first characteristics that a person considers regarding himself or herself is the categorisation to a particular group linked to race or ethnicity. Thus, demographic attributes cause an increase of dissimilarities between group members.
When speaking of workplace diversity as an essential aspect of engineering settings, it is also important to mention various stages of diversity. The first category is social diversity which is being manifested at the surface level of organisation and is only concerned with social relationships that emerge between people. The second category deals with information and decision-making and is associated when there are differences in the goals, values and knowledge among people (Hamedani 3). This category is further differentiated into deep and surface level diversity. While the latter is associated with easily detectable characteristics such as gender, age, race or ethnicity, the former is concerned with variables that are not apparent immediately, such as differences in goals, values, missions and others.
Causes of Internal Conflicts
Internal conflicts represent occurrences associated with emotional and psychological struggles. They take place when the morals, values or ideas of an individual are challenges, restricted or compromised in any other way. As a rule, there are several distinct causes of internal conflicts among employees such as the lack of effective communication, the existence of different values and views, clashes of personality, scarce resources and the inadequate level of performance.
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The absence of communication is considered to lead to conflict situations because the actions or words of a person can be misconstrued by another, leading to an altercation. Poor communication in the workplace is frustrating for both employees and their managers and can increase the changes of inadequate performance, the lack of teamwork, reduced morale and dropping profits. In an engineering setting, communication is considered the key to ensuring that every project participant understands his or her goals and participates in communal decision-making.
A breakdown in communication can rapidly increase the likelihood of conflicts arising when in reality, the only problem may lie in the misunderstanding of the expectations of another party (McQuerrey). For example, when engineers are working on a team project, but the leader of that team has failed to define roles and responsibilities, then missed deadlines, blaming or finger pointing are likely to occur. This will inevitably disrupt the process altogether and force project participants to spend time on the redefinition of responsibilities, the establishment of clear deadlines for the completion of each project stage, and ensuring that the timeline is met.
Apart from challenges in collaboration, unchecked gossip within engineering project groups can also be limited to effective communication among workers. If they are some rumours that circulate around a group project, workers can start worrying about their positions, doubt the future of their companies or have concerns regarding whether they would be paid for their contributions to projects.
The second kind of internal conflicts is linked to differences that exist between the beliefs and values of employees. In engineering organisations, diversity leads to the variability in values associated with the cultural backgrounds of employees that can encounter misunderstandings that affect interpersonal relationships. In the context of cross-cultural communication, employees are expected to show a range of behaviours for developing positive relationships.
However, the psychological pressures associated with projects, such as project deadlines or assigned responsibilities, lead to the decreased attention to respecting the values of others. When individuals from different cultural backgrounds have everyday interactions, the variability in their norm perceptions, power distance, gestures or facial expressions can turn a conversation into a debate.
An example of the mentioned conflict is based on the difference in how Western and Eastern cultures show their intentions. It is expected that engineers originating from Western countries, which are considered low context cultures, use specific and exact wording to pass their messages. For instance, a project manager may say to their subordinates: “the final deadline of the first stage is in two weeks.” However, high context cultures use indirect phrases and reported speech, which can subsequently lead to misunderstanding between colleagues. In regards to differences in values, employees from Eastern cultures may put strict deadlines and rules at the centre of their operations while those from Western backgrounds encourage flexibility and negotiation regarding deadlines.
When speaking of personality clashes in the workplace, they are inevitable in the context of engineering project groups. Such conflicts take place when workers exhibit a fundamental level of incompatibility in the personalities, approaches to work or styles of life. Carl Jung, one of the most prolific contributors to the understanding of individual psychology, identified that the polarity between introversion and extraversion fuels most of the personality clashes (Geyer 2). The opposition between personality types can lead to the breakdown of relationships within a team and damage the effectiveness of the project as a whole.
It must be mentioned that in the engineering environment where employees are required to perform at the top level consistently, personality clashes limit the performance. In many cases, such conflicts go unresolved because most people will concentrate on personalities instead of focusing on issues. As personality clashes escalate, a toxic work environment can develop and adversely influence the behaviour of engineers. Importantly, when clashes of personality occur between engineers of different cultural backgrounds, resolving such conflicts presents greater challenges.
Scarce resources represent another cause of internal conflicts in engineering projects. They have an adverse influence on employees because of the unequal distribution of rewards as resources are limited. For example, in a large group, concerns may arise regarding some engineers receiving greater rewards because of their contributions while others receive less just because they were not in management positions. In addition, conflicts can arise on the basis of some group members being given the tools and technologies for completing their assignments successfully while others are deprived of helpful tools.
Whoever is given more resources to be successful and productive in a group project will inevitably feel more valued and appreciated. A simple example regarding the engineering context comes from the TV show the Big Bang Theory, in which scientists had to please their manager in order to be given money to purchase the equipment they need to complete their projects. The one who got the money, in the end, felt superior to others, which led to multiple conflicts among co-workers.
Poor performance is the last source of internal conflict and can lead to multiple challenges in the workplace. It occurs when one or more people in a group project do not reach the desired level of performance and thus do not work to the potential that is expected from them. If the lack of sufficient performance is not addressed, conflicts are inevitable. In an engineering project context, it is possible that some employees complete a greater number of tasks than others and will feel frustrated because of this.
Causes of External Conflicts
Internal conflicts arise within a specific organisation or a group of people that pursue collective goals. External conflicts take place when disputes or arguments arise between an organisation and outside third parties such as suppliers, investors, creditors, customers or clients. In the context of an engineering project, external conflicts represent misunderstandings between the group and third parties that do not participate in the project directly.
Causes of external conflicts depend on the nature of engineering projects. Many of them can result from poor communication, financial constraints or the lack of alignment or agreement regarding goals and purposes. An example of external conflicts associated with an engineering project can relate to the misunderstanding between a team and a software supplier. The group may require a specific kind of software to fulfil the tasks during a project and may ask for the assistance of a company specialising in such products. A conflict can occur when the software does not perform to the expected level and causes disruptions within the project, and this can also lead to frustration among team members.
Conflicts are also common in the context of engineering companies when project teams are challenged by the efforts of a marketing firm or a department in the same organisation. According to the article by Shaw and Shaw, effective collaboration between the marketing and engineering functions of an organisation is essential for the successful creation of engineering products (1). However, there are high levels of conflict between engineers and marketers that can hamper the performance of group members within a project.
Shaw and Shaw’s research found that despite the relatively low level of conflict between marketers and engineers, there are some issues that the management of organisations should address for improving the relationships and minimising the occurrence of misunderstandings. One of the key propositions refers to the adequate colocation of the departments. This means reducing the interference of marketers into engineering projects or ensuring that the two teams collaborate on neutral ground.
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Conflict Resolution Strategies
For internal and external conflicts that arise on the basis of poor communication among project team members, several steps are recommended to ensure effective resolution. First, the management or those responsible for leading the team should set a clear communication policy, with which all workers will have to comply. An example of this is the ‘meeting minutes’ scenario that implies the recording and review of all team meetings and interactions. When team members meet up to discuss the project, it is recommended to record attendees’ names, items of discussion, deadlines and other important issues that affect the communication among workers.
In the diverse environment of engineering companies, it is recommended for the manager to consider the long-term consequences of conflicts. The damaging of professional relationships with co-workers is usually not worth the conflict, which is why psychologies have been proposing some resolution methods. For instance, based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Figure 1), which was created at the beginning of the 1970s, is a representation of how an argument can be eliminated in a two-dimensional context and can be used as a tool for guiding individuals’ behaviours (Thomas and Kilmann 10).
In the engineering setting, cooperative and assertive strategies of conflict resolutions are the most appropriate due to the need to build an environment in which teamwork will be the focus. Collaboration is the strategy that calls for the reaching of the ‘you win, I win outcome.’ For example, when two engineers contribute equally to a group project, they should develop a synchronised solution to their conflict in a way that will benefit both of them.
The strategy of compromise is seen as the most effective because it combines the qualities of cooperative and assertive conflict resolution methods. It can be used in instances when both sides of an argument are willing to give in to reach a middle ground and the ‘neither win nor lose’ outcome. Compromising is the most likely to bring success when a conflict has occurred between employees of equal power and thus it is not worth to engage in competing or avoiding.
In a high-pressure environment of engineering organisations, stress management is another positive solution method for eliminating conflicts in the workplace. Stress is mental pressure and the feeling of strain that is linked to burdensome cases. The adverse impact is seen both in the mental and physical state of individuals, which makes them more susceptible to arguments and conflicts. Therefore, stress management procedures represent a positive alternative to other conflict resolution strategies and is a technique implying the control of workers’ stress levels.
The interventions can range from coaching sessions to the establishment of a ‘no-stress’ policy that will include rests and leaves, exercises, the reduction of the workload, the encouragement of decision-making and others (“62 Stress Management Techniques, Strategies, & Activities”). The benefits of stress management are vast and establishing a positive environment in which the physical and mental needs of employees will be considered.
In summary, it must be mentioned that the environment of engineering organisations is complex and multi-dimensional, especially in terms of the high levels of diversity and cultural variability. In such an environment, conflicts are unavoidable and are a part of the working process. Internal and external conflicts have been identified to be those that arise on the basis of several variables. Ineffective communication between team members has been identified as one of the most pressing problems leading to conflicts.
Internally, conflicts are the most prominent when it comes to the interactions of group members: the unequal distribution of power, resources or responsibilities enables workers to engage in arguments that subsequently transform into conflicts. Externally, engineering teams may encounter the opposition from suppliers, partners or another department of an organisation. This means that external conflicts are rather concerned with ineffective communications between groups of employees.
Differences in values, beliefs and perceptions of the world also play significant roles in the shaping of both internal and external conflicts. As engineering companies hire a diverse workforce, conflicts on the basis of cultural variability are inevitable. They can harm interpersonal relationships between colleagues, hamper productivity and limit the success of projects. It is the responsibility of managers to establish a workplace setting in which cultural differences between employees are celebrated and accepted.
The key recommendation associated with addressing both internal and external conflicts within engineering project teams is concerned with the establishment of effective communication patterns among workers. This is possible through the integration of a communication policy that encourages transparency, the sharing of ideas and the documentation of deadlines and responsibilities. While such a method is rather linked to conflict prevention, the process of resolution implies collaboration and compromise, which are strategies outlined by Thomas and Kilmann.
In engineering projects, workers usually have relatively equal levels of power because their unique expertise contributes to the success of the final product. Therefore, a win-win or neither win not lose approaches are favourable strategies to conflict resolution. While it should be noted that every conflict resolution approach depends on the nature of every situation and each individual, fostering a positive environment at engineering companies is the key to projects’ success and the well-being of employees.
Cobos, Francisco. “Poor Communication Lead to Conflicts and Harms the Organization, It’s Essential to Have Reliable Structures in Place.” Medium. 2018. Web.
Geyer, Peter. “Extraversion – Introversion: What C. G. Jung Meant and how Contemporaries responded.” Researchgate. 2012. Web.
Hamedani, Mahshid. “Conflict and Communication Among Engineers.” Eprints. 2012. Web.
McQuerrey, Lisa. “How Does a Lack of Communication Cause Conflict in the Workplace.” Small Business. 2019. Web.
“62 Stress Management Techniques, Strategies, & Activities.” Positive Psychology Program. 2019. Web.
Shaw, Viv, and Chris Shaw. “Conflict Between Engineers and Marketers – R&D’s Perspective.” Industrial Marketing Management, vol. 27, no. 4, 1998, pp. 1-3.
“Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.” Pinterest. Web.
Thomas, Kenneth, and Ralph Kilmann. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Xicom, 1997.