I Googled ‘how to resolve team conflict’. There was a lot of good advice (as you’d expect!) but it was all quite generic. There were no real-life examples of team conflict. And none of the articles recognized that how you resolve conflict depends on what is causing the conflict.
What are the causes of conflict in your team? In this article I look at 5 examples of team conflict and how to resolve them.
First, let’s look at the fundamentals of resolving team conflict.
How great managers resolve any team conflict
Here are the fundamentals of resolving any team conflict:
- Recognize the early signs of team conflict
- Check your biases
- Provide feedback to your team members
- Don’t personalize, focus on behavior and outcomes
- Listen, and demonstrate your own emotional intelligence
- Tap into the authority of the organization
- Understand the power of progressive action
- Know when to involve your HR team
Let’s look at each in turn…
Recognize the early signs of team conflict
As a manager you need to keep some mental bandwidth free to observe your team. This comes in many forms. It includes being aware of the wellbeing of your team, their performance, their engagement with their work and the organization.
You also need to keep an eye out for behaviors that are early indicators of conflict. It might be a shrug of the shoulders, a particular tone of voice, or perhaps the absence of a response. Be observant of how your team are working together and the early signs of conflict.
Check your biases
It’s human nature to have biases. They are decision-making ‘short cuts’ but sometimes they can trip us up.
Check your biases. Here are a few examples:
Anchoring Bias: over relying on the first piece of information. If there’s a “he said, she said” argument, it’s easier to accept the first version you hear.
Confirmation bias: the tendency to value and focus on ideas that affirm preexisting beliefs. If you already have doubts about one team member, any negative comments or criticism will be easier to accept (whether it’s true or not!).
Sunk cost bias: a tendency to continue to provide support once an investment has been made. If you have invested time and energy in a team member, you’re going to find it harder to acknowledge mistakes that they’ve made.
For more on our natural biases during times of conflict, take a look at this mediate.com article.
As far as is humanly possible, make sure you head into conflict with your biases checked.
Provide feedback to your team members
Sometimes, all it takes to resolve conflict is a little feedback and the opportunity for team members to vent.
Effective feedback looks like this: start with the observed behavior, then describe the consequences. To open a discussion, add a big, neutral question such as “what are your thoughts on this?”.
If you’re providing feedback in the moment (during a team meeting, for example), it might look something like this:
Hey y’all. We’re starting to interrupt each other, raise our voices, it feels like we’re all getting a little frustrated. What would be a better way forward?
They may come up with ideas themselves. If they don’t, encourage them to step out of the content of the conversation, and return to defining shared goals.
And if you’re providing feedback after the event, it might look something like this:
In the meeting this morning you raised your voice when responding to Pablo. It shut him down and it looked to me like he was a little upset. What are your thoughts on this?
The team member may acknowledge what they had stepped over the line. In this case, your job is done. Or they may have raises further objections, in which case you’re in dialogue about appropriate behavior in the future.
Don’t personalize, focus on behavior and outcomes
One of the reasons why conflict generates so many emotions is that it can challenge our sense of identity (take a look at ‘the identity conversation’ in this 3 levels of conversation article).
If people feel they are being doubted, or their abilities or values are being challenged, you’re into an identity conversation.
To avoid this, keep the conversation focused on the ideas and the work, rather than the individuals involved.
For example, use phrases like “working collaboratively will…”, rather than “you should be…” to get a better response.
Listen, and demonstrate your emotional intelligence
You see people starting to ‘leak emotions’ during conflict. Perhaps they’ll raise their voices, interrupt, roll their eyes, make little comments, resort to email rather than picking up the phone, go ‘off video’ in calls when it’s not their usual habit. These are some of the early signs that I referred to earlier.
Different team members will have different ways of dealing with conflict, learn what to look out for in each individual.
And don’t just scan your team for early signs of conflict. Keep some mental bandwidth to scan yourself for early signs of conflict too!
When you’re working to resolve team conflict, it’s essential that you don’t slip into negative behaviors yourself. Pause, calm yourself, draw on your emotional intelligence and apply your listening skills.
Tap into the authority of the organization
Managers (especially new managers) often rely too much on personal authority and don’t use the authority of the organization appropriately.
You can access the ‘soft power’ that stems from the organization’s values, the strategy, the vision, mission, defined leadership competencies, and any other documented points of reference. I know it’s easy to be cynical about these assets, but as a manager you can help to bring them to life by referencing them during conflict.
It might look something like this:
Collaboration is one of our stated values. It’s part of how we should aspire to work. Let’s talk about this and how as a group we can better collaborate when…
It will work better than saying “I need you all to collaborate!”.
Understand the power of progressive action
It’s important to recognize that resolving team conflict is challenging. Your first response might not work.
Have a plan of progressive action in mind. For example, you might talk to team members individually first. If the conflict continues, talk to them together. Then discuss with the whole team. Then involve HR. Ultimately you might manage team members out of the business (not ideal, but sometime necessary).
These are just examples. The key point is this idea of progressive action.
Knowing that you have two or three additional steps available to you, if required, will enable you to take each step with confidence.
Know when to involve your HR team
It’s better to make HR aware earlier, rather than later, if there is conflict in your team.
They may have some good advice for you.
And if the conflict does escalate to the point where you must consider the future of a team member, you will need to talk with HR, and it will help you if they know the context.
A quick word on healthy conflict
At this point it’s important to note that not all conflict is a problem!
There is positive conflict too.
This happens when team members care strongly about the work they’re doing, have differing opinions, are vocal and argue their case, and stay focused on finding the best possible solution. This is productive conflict, and an essential part of how high performing teams operate.
If you find your team getting stuck in healthy conflict, help them get past the ‘positions’ that they’re taking in the conflict. Help them step back and align around common goals to understand the purpose behind the positions they are taking.
Coach them with questions like:
- “Why is it important to you that…”
- “How would you collectively define the goal you’re trying to achieve?”
- “What can you agree on?”
And when you see productive conflict within your team, let your team know. Celebrate the behavior, you have a great team at work!
5 common examples of team conflict plus solutions
Here are 5 common causes of team conflict:
- Personality clashes
- Poor communication
- Bullying and harassment
- Poor work habits
- Organizational change
It’s important to note that conflict can be brief, explosive disputes or subtle, longer-lasting tensions. You need to recognize and manage both types of conflict.
Keep in mind all the points I’ve covered above, then tailor your actions based on the advice below.
Example 1: team conflict caused by personality clashes
Sometimes team members just clash. Often there’s not much substance to it, it’s quite superficial, but there are still consequences.
The solution: broker the peace, set expectations, monitor carefully, recognize progress. To broker the peace: talk to each of the individuals separately, ask their perspective, empathize. Then set expectations for future behavior. All this can be done by providing effective feedback. Keep an eye on them. Then, when appropriate, recognize the progress they have made.
When appropriate, talk with your entire team about the different social styles that can have an impact on working relationships.
Example 2: team conflict caused by poor communication
Email battles, poor presentations, confusion over meeting outcomes. There are many opportunities in the workplace for poor communications that trigger team conflict.
The solution: diagnose the specific problem, develop their skills, set expectations. One key consideration when diagnosing the problem: is this a ‘one-off’ event or a recurring problem. For example, if certain team members are regularly getting into length passive-aggressive email exchanges, you know there’s an issue to be addressed.
Sometimes there is a skills gap that needs to be resolved. Ask yourself this question: “If they really wanted to do the right thing, could they?”. The answer will help you see if there’s a skills gap that you need to close.
Here are three resources that will help you:
- How to write effective emails
- A simple, engaging presentation structure
- How to handle Q&As
- Running effective meetings
If they have the skills, but are choosing not to take the appropriate action, then provide feedback and set expectations for future behavior.
Example 3: team conflict caused by bullying and harassment
Some conflict quickly moves beyond what is acceptable in the workplace. Patterns of mistreatment that cause either physical or emotional harm. Sometimes this is easy to recognize, and sometimes it’s the result of microaggressions.
The solution: seek advice from HR, make ‘contemporaneous’ notes of all actions. As soon as you’re aware of these patterns, seek HR advice. You should also start making ‘contemporaneous’ notes of all relevant conversations, observations, actions. (‘Contemporaneous’ is just a fancy word for making the notes soon after the events have taken place, the same day is a good benchmark.)
Also, talk with your own manager and let them know what is happening.
For your reputation, and the reputation of the organization, it’s important that you move quickly to resolve this type of team conflict.
Example 4: team conflict caused by poor work habits
Team members that turn up late, make careless mistakes, miss deadlines. All examples of poor work habits. These behaviors can easily trigger conflict with other team members (especially with the team members who do actually care about the quality of work done!).
This conflict can be the more subtle, longer-lasting conflict that I mentioned earlier. And it can be corrosive, it needs managing.
The solution: provide feedback, set clear goals, implement closer supervision. Managing poor performance is one of the biggest challenges for any manager. Start by providing feedback, then set FAST goals and invest more time in closer supervision until the performance improves.
Example 5: team conflict caused by organizational change
For example, imagine that your team is taking on some new responsibilities. Some of your team will probably be excited, they will approach the opportunity with a growth mindset and welcome the opportunity to learn.
Others in your team will likely be more wary, more anxious about whether they can adapt, less comfortable taking on new responsibilities.
These different responses to change can easily bubble into conflict.
The solution: make the case for change, encourage and support each team member (recognizing where they currently are in the journey). First, make sure you have the basics in place to implement change successfully. Then, focus on communication. Make the case for change.
Workshop what’s within your team’s sphere of influence and help them take control of aspects of the change.
How to resolve team conflict: final thoughts
Team conflict is one of those crucible moments. Lots of pressure, tension, and energy. Get it right and the whole team comes through it stronger.
It’s also one of those aspects of your role that will define you as a manager.
Use all the guidance above, take the time to reflect on what has worked and what you need to do differently, and enable yourself for success.