Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How can conflict within a group be managed?

Vanessa Chang
School of Information Systems, Curtin Business School
Curtin University of Technology
Group assignment has always been a part of the assessment component in systems development unit. The purpose of group assignment is to mimic a real life situation where a group of systems professionals would get together to design and build a system. In some instances, due to individual personalities and other factors, it has been observed that not all group members will be totally committed to team work within the group.

A Group Evaluation Form has been designed for students attending a second year systems development unit offered by the School of Information Systems at Curtin University of Technology. Students who complete this form must evaluate their own contribution to the group and also the contributions of other group members. This form has worked effectively where a problem such as under performance of an individual was identified early during the semester rather than towards the end of the semester. For many groups, this early identification has typically resulted in the rejection and subsequent removal of the under performing member by the group. In this instance, the lecturer in charge is informed of the group's decision. Students having the right to choose whom they wish to work with inevitably gravitate towards those they are comfortable with. This paper identifies some of the problems faced by students who are rejected by their peers and discusses the emotional impact upon those who made the decision to remove a fellow student from their group and proposes ways of dealing with this common situation.


Introduction

In professional disciplines such as engineering, nursing, medicine and business (Nightingale et al, 1996), many educators are introducing group work as a preparation for professional practice which increasingly requires students to work in teams. Being 'in a group' is an experience that is repeated many times over in an adult lifetime, with large amounts of energy being channelled into the often difficult struggle of coping with demands of membership (Tyson, 1998). It is inevitable that 'being in a group' may result in conflict. These conflicts could be due to individual personalities, lack of contribution from a student or lack of commitment from a student to group work.

Bertcher (1979:14) defined a group as "a dynamic, social entity composed of two or more individuals, interacting interdependently in relation to one or more common goals that are valued by its members, so that each member influences and is influenced by every other member, to some degree, through face-to-face communication. Over time, if the individuals who comprise the group continue to assemble, they tend to develop means for determining who is and who is not a member, statuses and roles for members, and values and norms that regulate behaviour of consequence to the group." Bertcher's comprehensive definition of 'group' described the life cycle of group patterns of exploration, involvement, conflict, cohesion and work, and acknowledgement.

Group work assessment method

Over the years, much research has been conducted in the area of assessing group work. There are three approaches of assessing group work: Product Assessment, Process Assessment, and Observer Assessment (Nightingale, 1996).

Product assessment looks at the final outcome of the group's work. This assessment assumed that if the final product of the group work is of high quality, the group must have worked well together. Process assessment takes into account the contributions of individual members of the group. This may result in uneven marks allocation per group member. It is sometimes left to the group to determine how the marks should be allocated. If all group members are satisfied with each member's contribution, the marks are allocated evenly. However, marks will not be allocated evenly if a group member has not contributed to the group work. The final assessment of observer assessment calls for the lecturer or tutor to observe the group. The observer would rate the way tasks are allocated and planned, and to see whether the member assigned to the tasks has carried out the activities satisfactorily.

Group work and group conflict

As group tasks and activities get under way, it is almost inevitable that problems of one kind or another will confront the group. These may be internal problems (ie whatever impedes the group's own functioning) such as absenteeism, dominance by a few members, unresolved conflict in discussion, lack of contribution by some group members, or external problems (ie whatever impinges on the task) such as insufficient information and inappropriate or lack of technology.

Conflict must be effectively handled if it is not to be a barrier to progress, a cause of destruction of the group (Heron, 1989), or a source of physical or psychological damage to an individual (Tyson, 1998). Conflict can occur between people (one-to-one) or between groups (one-to-many or many-to-many). Internal problems seem to be one of the main causes of many group conflicts. Individuals who are said to be 'problematic' are often viewed as ineffective 'followers'. Followership as a concept has received much less attention in the literature than leadership, yet a good follower is crucial to the success of any group (Tyson, 1998). As shown in Table 1, Kelley (1988) classified ineffective followers as sheep, alienated, 'yes' people and survivor followers.

FollowersCharacteristics
SheepPassive, Uncritical, Lacking in initiative, Followers of instructions
Alienated Disgruntled, Often cynical
'Yes' peopleDependent on leader, sometimes aggressively differential
SurvivorLive by the slogan 'better safe than sorry'

Table 1: Kelley's Ineffective Followers

In contrast to these, Kelley (1988) speaks of self-confident followers who see other members as allies and leaders as equal.

Assessment method: Second year Systems Development unit

The assessment in this unit is divided into three components, two group work assignments and a final exam. The two group work assignments contribute to 60% of the total unit assessment. Students were encouraged to form into a group of not less than two and not more than three. Each group was also asked to appoint a group leader. Only in exceptional cases (such as students taking the same units and therefore can often meet) that there were some groups with four members. A combined group assessment method of process and observer assessments was used in this unit. A Group Evaluation Form (see Attachment I) was used to evaluate the process assessment. Each team member must evaluate their peers and their own contribution. This evaluation is conducted during and leading up to the submission day of each assignment. A Group Tasks Form for the observer assessment (see Attachment II) is used to allocate tasks to each group member. It is the individual's responsibility to ensure that the tasks assigned are completed, and completed satisfactorily to the group's expectation.

The combined method

Each group assignment requires students to submit two group evaluation forms, one during the course of getting the assignment together and another one prior to the submission of the assignment. This form has worked effectively where a problem such as under performance of an individual was identified early during the semester rather than towards the end of the semester. For many groups, this early identification has typically resulted in the rejection and formal removal of the under performing member by the group. In instances such as this, the evaluation form becomes an official removal and rejection document. An incident had occurred in this unit where a group member was rejected and removed from the group. This rejected student was at the point of suffering a nervous breakdown and had become stressful over the removal. Even though relieved that this particular student is no longer part of the group, the other members had found it very difficult to cope with the formal removal of a group member and the distress that it had caused the rejected member. Soon after the removal of this member, another incident had happened outside the university where the rejected member's family had verbally abused the group leader. Tyson (1998) cautions that "a debate or argument will rapidly develop into a more substantial conflict of interest, then into direct opposition, and eventually stalemate or possible violence."

How to handle group conflict?

According to the literature and professional counsellors, conflict is best handled by managing it and adopting appropriate strategies to bring about a desired end. According to Tyson (1998), this calls for action dealing with the situation rather than responding to the situation. Conflict involves negotiation, whether it resulted in a Win-Lose or a Win-Win outcome. Naturally a Win-Win outcome is preferred.

Thankfully, the incident described previously ended in a Win-Win situation. The biggest issue in dealing with the situation was to give the problem time and a 'cool down' period. This situation may not have resulted in a Win-Win outcome if the situation was responded to immediately. Counselling services were offered to all parties involved (including the negotiator).

Observation of the state of emotional processes

A huge amount of emotional investment exists in group conflict and its resolution. The emotional state of any group members may start off with a negative emotional process winding off to a positive emotional process. The literature states that it is much more healthier to have both sets of emotional processes (Heron, 1989).

During the course of the group conflict in the earlier example, the group of students went through the course of negative emotional processes of alienation, suppression, displacement, degradation, and expression. This negative state is more evident in the rejected student and the student who was verbally abused. Over a period of a week or so, these negative states which were evident in the two students were transformed to the positive state of acceptance, control, and redirection.

Conclusion

The assessment method and the group evaluation form adopted in this unit were used effectively to identify initial problems. Many groups have found that this is an effective mechanism to get the group to work together as a team and to make teams work. Many students have indicated that they were committed to their group work simply because they were assessed by their fellow students. In occurrences of group conflict and differences, a guideline or policy must be put in place to help solve the conflict.

The conflict given in this paper was solved by having open, honest and frank discussions and by approaching the situation calmly and to listen to reasons provided by all parties. As a definition of assessment Cartwright (1997) states that "assessment is the process of collecting a range of information about learners and their diverse achievement, and about performance, and making judgements about the significance of this information." In resolving conflict, it is hoped that as an educator we will not have to make judgement over who is right or wrong but to listen to all sides and be able to encourage all parties to communicate openly and honestly. By doing this, the emotional state of the person should move from a negative state to a positive one. From this experience, the conflict resolution should always take place on neutral ground such as on campus and not at anyone's 'comfortable zone' (for example at the home of a group member). Above all, as educators we should take the problem-solving approach to conflict resolution as a challenge. Conflict is positive, necessary, and manageable, but also has a negative potential for destructiveness that must be approached with care and understanding. Positive outcomes experienced in the classroom will hopefully remind the students that conflict in their present or future professional environment can be managed.

References

Bertcher, H. J. (1979). Group Participation: Techniques for Leaders and Members. Beverley Hills, CA.

Cartwright, N. (1997). Assessment and Feedback - A Handbook for Tertiary Teachers. University of Ballarat, Victoria.

Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitators' Handbook. Kogan Page Ltd, New York.

Kelley, R. E. (1988). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec: 142-148.

Nightingale, P., Waita, I. T., Ryan, G., Hughes, C., and Magin, D. (1996). Assessing Learning in Universities. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Tyson, T. (1998). Working with Groups. 2nd ed, Macmillan Education Australia.


Attachment I

Group Evaluation Form

    Your Name:
    Group Name:

In the spaces provided below, fill in the names of each team member, and rate the overall contribution of each toward the completion of Assignments 1 and 2.

Timeliness of Work
Has the team member completed tasks when needed by other team members?

Members' Name Always LateSeldom on TimeUsually on TimeAlways on TimeAhead of Time
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Cooperation with Others
Has the team member made an effort to make the team work?

Members' Name Never cooperativeSeldom cooperativeUsually cooperativeAlways cooperativeVery cooperative
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Quality of Contribution
To what degree has the team member cared about their own contribution?

Members' Name Minimal contributionBelow expectationsAverage contributionAbove expectationsSets standards
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Quality of Contribution
Did each team member do all that they offered / given to do?

Members' Name Below requirementsSomewhat lackingAdequate responseGood effortSuperior effort
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Willingness to Assume Responsibility
Were they committed to completing the group assignment?

Members' Name Rejects responsibilityReluctantly acceptsAccepts responsibilityOccasionally volunteersAlways accepts
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Knowledge of Work
Did they know what they were doing? Did anyone have to redo this person's work?

Members' Name Below expectationsSomewhat lackingGood knowledge
Yourself


Member 1:


Member 2:


Attendance at Meetings
Did they attend meetings?

Members' Name Never attendAlways lateUsually attendAlways attend
Yourself



Member 1:



Member 2:



Participation in Team Work
Has the team member made an effort to participate in team meetings?

Members' Name Never participateSeldom participateUsually participateAlways participateVery dominant
Yourself




Member 1:




Member 2:




Participation in Team Work
Were you able to go away from each meeting feeling that the team has achieved something?

Usually Achieved Nothing
Usually Achieved Something
Always Achieved Something

Quality of Contribution
Did anyone have to do this person's work?

Members' Name
Yourself    Yes  No
Member 1:  Yes  No
Member 2:  Yes  No

Overall Group Effort
Do you think this group is working as a TEAM?

Yes
No
Please speak to this member (Tick one or more or none):
Member 1 __  Member 2 __

General Comments on Group Effort







Adapted from Wicks, B.E. and Stribling, J. (1991). The Use of Peer Reviews for Evaluation of Individual Student Performance in Group Projects. Journal of Leisure and Recreational Education, 6, 46-56, as reported in Embury, L. (1997). Distribution of Marks in Group Work. In Tilbrook, R. (Ed) (1997), Showcasing Best Practice at ECU. Proceedings of the Best Practice Show Case, Edith Cowan University, 11 Dec 1996 Perth. http://www.cowan.edu.au/eddev/showcase/showcont.htm

Adapted with Permission from Mun, R., School of Chemical Engineering, Curtin University of Technology, 1997.


Attachment II

Group Tasks Form
Assignment 1 / Assignment 2

Date: __________

Group Members: _____________________________________________________

To do list / What the group set out to achieve -

1.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
5.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
2.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
6.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
3.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
7.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
4.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by
8.
Person(s) Responsible:
Task Completed: __ / __ / __
   by

Other Activities, General Comments:






Please cite as: Chang, V. (1999). How can conflict within a group be managed? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 59-66. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/chang.html


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