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How do successful teams manage conflict?

Seven tips for addressing conflict before it begins.
4 min read

Conflict and competition within a team can be a motivating force, or it can cause conflicts that tear groups apart. The competitive desire to succeed and win can drive some to cheat. We accept competition for recognition, for awards, for pay increases as normal business. We might even enjoy rivalries in sports or with our business competitors.

“Some research studies suggest such competition can motivate employees, make them put in more effort, and achieve results. Indeed, competition increases physiological and psychological activation, which prepares body and mind for increased effort and enables higher performance” states the authors of The Pros and Cons of Competition Among Employees in the Harvard Business Review.

Share the same goal

Building a team with the right chemistry is ideal, but the priority should be building a team with the same goal. Communicate goals clearly and regularly so the team knows what they’re working toward. Competition with a clear understanding of the rules and what will constitute a win can keep the emphasis on innovation. With an eye on the final goal, team members will be less likely to get caught up in short-term disputes. When everyone is trying to get the best results then conflict feels more like collectively getting to the best answer.

Capitalize on individual strengths

Effective teams know how to turn the success of individuals into a successful group effort. Maintaining a healthy dose of competition keeps a project from stagnating. Inevitably, somebody will come up with a better idea or get the work done before somebody else. Channel these individual successes into a drive for more success. Team members with the right skills will see how their individual strengths can improve upon another team member’s idea. Managers need to find ways to reward the team for a success and not just an individual contributor.

“Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”

Liane Davey, psychologist and business strategist

Celebrate differences

Diversity is not just a feel-good cliché of the modern era. It can actually be a way to boost individual confidence and encourage collaboration. When employees see how they differ from each other and learn to value those differences, they will see less friction in their collaborative efforts. Diverse perspectives create more and often better problem-solving opportunities.

Create psychological safety

Misbehavior is more likely when someone feels fear or anxiety. Conflict is important and inevitable. Welcome conflict in the group in a way all members can understand and accept. Teams and their managers need to discuss what healthy competition and conflict look like. Team members need to discuss how they will challenge each other’s assumptions, behaviors, and ideas to ensure the team continues to be productive.

When discussing conflict, place the focus on creativity and bigger wins. People respond negatively to a fear of loss. For example, telling a team they’ll get a day off if they meet their deadline is motivating. Telling a team they’ll lose a day off if they miss their deadline arouses anxiety. The final outcome might be the same, but how it is presented matters.

“Managers need to know how to create teams that feel psychologically safe enough for conflicting opinions to be aired and the benefits of diversity exploited.”

Mark de Rond, “Conflict Keeps Teams at the Top of Their Game,” Harvard Business Review

Establish team checkpoints

Measuring progress along the way gives value to the original goal. This helps the team continue to share the same goal and renew their focus. It also allows for reevaluation of goals if necessary. Checkpoints also give team members a chance to voice their concerns throughout the project. Keep in mind these are team checkpoints, not individual progress reports.

Strong teams are made up of diverse individuals with specific roles but the same goal. They recognize that each member has a purpose, and are aware that they could not accomplish the task as well on their own.

Start with the right team

Building complementary teams of people can be the best way to prevent conflict before it even begins. Assessments can help identify and evaluate team dynamics, strengths, and areas for development. Managers can onboard new team members with some insight into where unhealthy conflicts might easily arise from simple misunderstandings or differing personal priorities.

Clarify task and role expectations

Many conflicts on teams can be avoided if everyone understands what they are responsible for, what they have committed to do, and how they will be held accountable. Avoid finger-pointing, blame, and missed deadlines by setting expectations together.

Help for managers

Managers and team leaders can encourage healthy conflict that leads to innovation. There are several tools to help. When assembling a team, build balance and reduce personality conflict by discussing everyone’s personalities and priorities through a tool like Everything DiSC Workplace®. For more established teams, consider an assessment like The Five Behaviors® Team Development to discuss issues like trust, conflict, and accountability. If a team member or two are struggling, coach them with the help of Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict.

Investing in a team’s experience of conflict as something healthy and welcome because it’s creative and energizing can lead a team toward positive results. Plus it’ll be a team that others will want to join or emulate.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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