Too Hot to Handle?

How to Manage Relationship Conflict

Conventional wisdom, along with the weight of published management advice, has suggested that managers engage task conflict but avoid relationship conflict. Implicit in this advice is the premise that it is indeed possible to separate the task and the relationship aspects of a business conflict. This article argues that this separation is not always possible for management teams. When teams discuss “hot topics,” substantive disagreements (task conflicts) tend to trigger negative attributions about others' motives, character, or abilities.  Managers usually try to suppress these attributions, but they often find their way into business conversations in the form of aggravated tones of voice, intensifying the conflict.  This dilemma and its negative impact on team performance are inevitable as long as relationship conflict is seen as “too hot to handle.”