Are you a constructive problem-solver or a destructive problem-solver? Some strategies for working in groups

Here at Queen’s UGME, we use small group learning a great deal—from our prosections to PBL-based Facilitated Small Group Learning, to our TBL-based Small Group Learning.

SGL: Hard at work (Credit: T. Suart)

One very important aspect of group learning is preparing students to work successfully in teams. We do this in our first sessions in Orientation Week and in our new course, Introduction to Physician Roles.

In my quest to support our faculty in promoting successful group learning, I recently came across a jewel and I thought I’d share it with you.

The jewel is actually a whole book:  Team writing: A guide to working in groups by Joanna Wolfe (2010,  Bedford/St. Martin’s).  I started with my usual dipping into sections and found myself reading cover to cover because of the concise, sensible and evocative ideas.

The concept I wanted to talk to you about today is what Wolfe terms Constructive and Destructive Conflicts.

Our students have lots of experience negotiating in groups (Think of all those high school groups!  And case work in Commerce and projects in Engineering!  And Lab partners!) and in making sure their groups work well. But research tells us that conflict in groups is a very challenging part of arriving at a successful outcome.  Teams that deal with conflict by competing or trying to avoid the conflict are likely to suffer.  One main aspect of conflict is not to prematurely close a discussion because of conflict but to make sure it’s healthy.

I think Joanna Wolfe’s ideas would further help students solve problems themselves, by deciding if they are constructive or destructive in a conflict situation.

The term constructive conflict was coined to stress the productive role that healthy conflict can play in problem-solving.  Constructive conflict occurs when two people share the same goal but hold different ideas about how to achieve that goal.  (Wolfe p. 52)

This type of conflict is good especially when there is productive debate of merits and drawbacks of ideas in pursuit of the best solution to a problems. But not all conflict aids learning.  Destructive conflict occurs when there is intransigence, mockery or ridicule, personal affronts, and emotional defensiveness. (Wolfe, p. 53)

Here are the differences between Constructive Conflict and Destructive Conflict as recorded by Wolfe.  Can you see aspects of yourself in the Destructive Conflict? in Constructive Conflict?

Wolfe, p. 54

If you find you are in destructive conflict mode, here are some strategies Wolfe recommends (italics mine):

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities up front in a task schedule.
  • Lay ground rules for conversation
    • Set aside time for uncritical brainstorming
    • Get input from everyone in the group including the introverts who may need more time
    • Restate ideas (to help with listening)
    • Don’t interrupt or if you do, apologize, write down your idea, listen, and wait
    • Set time limits for discussion of certain items before moving to an action proposal
  • Establish team priorities in a project plan or team charter

I found a few other helpful ideas from GOE, a group which has worked with NASA on simulation of small groups for space missions.

  • When a team members offers a dissenting point of view, thank her/him for speaking up (to encourage others to speak up).
  • Easiest way to kill psychological safety? Punish someone for voicing a dissenting opinion.
  • When two team members have an interpersonal conflict, it should typically be handled in private perhaps with a neutral mediator.
  • Conflicts sometimes emerge because small concerns go unchecked. Talk with your team to bring irritants to the surface before they become bigger problems.
  • Be constructive when you disagree with a team member (to model how to disagree effectively).
  • Admit your own concerns or mistakes (so other team members become comfortable voicing theirs).

And here’s one I use:  Think of a role model who handles conflict well, and channel their behaviour or even their words.

I haven’t even touched on the communication styles Wolfe identifies (Competitive vs Highly Considerate, Self-promotional vs Self-deprecating, and Action-Oriented vs. Holistic problem-solving styles) in Chapter 7.  But this will give you a good taste of self-analysis and strategies to assist in moving the team forward.

Stay tuned in a later blog article for Jewel 2 for small group learning:  What are good roles a small group learner can adopt?  A small group facilitator can adopt?

In the meantime, what do you feel can aid in preventing destructive conflict in a group?  And enhance constructive conflict?

 

 

 

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