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Managing conflict on teams

Managers can learn to make conflict on their teams positive and productive. Conflict is a natural part of every relationship, teams included. But it can be uncomfortable or unsettling for everyone involved. Whether a conflict affects the team’s performance or not depends on how it’s handled or resolved. The role of the manager or team lead will often influence how conflicts play out, but each team member can also work on their productive conflict skills.

Conflict can be managed

Managers who create a team culture of trust, open communication, collaboration, and respect will find it easier to address conflict when it inevitably arises. Teams that have discussed their roles and commitments, how they will communicate, and how they will handle conflicts are less likely to come to the manager to resolve problems. But what if you, as a manager or leader, have built a cohesive team but are still confronted with conflicts?

Observe and respond

Don’t wait for team members to bring their conflicts to you. You can be proactive if you are observant and address possible conflicts before they become real concerns.

Look for signs of conflict. Is someone sitting in a meeting with arms crossed and jaw clenched? Do two team members seem to be having a separate chat during a Zoom meeting? Has someone who usually contributed to discussions suddenly gone quiet? Did someone make a dismissive or rude comment?

If you immediately address the observed behavior with curiosity, you’ll be modeling productive behavior to your team and you may surface issues your team needs to address. Responding to quiet signals means you don’t have to respond to sirens later.

The better managers know the individuals on their teams, the better they will be at picking up on these cues. Managers who practice active listening, ask questions, and dig deeper can show that they are empathetic to the emotions felt by each person as well as help the team formulate positive interactions.

Understand common causes of conflict

There are many opportunities for conflict on a team. Understanding these will give managers clues as to which they can resolve through their mediation skills and which might require exercising their authority.

Task conflict

Task conflict can occur because there’s a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities on the team. Unclear expectations for performance levels or policies can also lead to task conflict. For example, job tickets aren’t being completed even though there are four people to handle them. This is a manager’s job to fix with clearer communication around expectations and/or better procedures.

A task conflict can be about how something is done—a process-related conflict. Perhaps a new nurse inserts an IV using a different technique than the one the hospital uses. Maybe the new technique is better, or maybe not. The manager can help focus the conflict on which procedure has the best outcome for the patient, thereby meeting team goals.

There’s a natural tension on teams that you might want between or among roles. For example, your team is planning a big event. You want someone with bold and creative ideas and you also want someone who is thinking about practicalities like the budget. These two people or perspectives should be in conflict while you’re finalizing plans. That will increase the likelihood of getting the best event possible within your budget. This tension between roles encourages the type of debate that allows for the sharing and combining of perspectives. This type of conflict can be a creative force that leads to better judgments and decisions.

Relationship conflict

What begins as a task-related conflict can escalate into a personal one. If the original disagreement is not addressed, it can lead to resentment, gossip, distrust, or other negative emotions and behaviors. Of course, relationship conflicts can also occur independently of other conflicts.

Teams are often formed with people who wouldn’t normally have an affinity for each other. Differences in personality, style, matters of taste, and more are to be expected. This is one reason why it’s so important to build trust on teams. You don’t want these differences to become divisive. You want them to be respected and valued.

This is one area in which personality assessments can be helpful. With them, teams are given a shared and nonjudgmental language for identifying and discussing differences. Understanding common differences and how they can make a group stronger goes a long way toward creating a collaborative environment.

Values conflict

Conflict over values can be the trickiest to navigate. This type of conflict can arise from fundamental differences in politics, religion, ethics, norms, and other deeply held beliefs. Even if the team has agreed to refrain from discussions about politics and religion, disputes about values can still arise in the context of work decisions and policies.

Disputes centered on values can bring out defensiveness, distrust, and feelings of alienation. People can become deeply rooted in their positions and feel threatened by a compromise.

Managers may want to step in and settle these conflicts according to their own values. If these are values expressly addressed in the organization’s mission or policies, then this can be the right approach. However, if they are not, then the manager should facilitate respectful dialogue, aiming only for understanding, not resolution. The manager can also appeal to values you know everyone on the team shares and focus on these values rather than those that led to the dispute.

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Resolving conflicts

Managers and team leaders have both influence and power they can use to influence the outcomes of conflicts.

Know your own style of conflict

Self-knowledge is always a good place to begin when dealing with management issues. Your response to conflict situations is in your own control, and how you handle conflict will affect your team. What are your most common positive and negative responses to conflict? Are you willing to have objective debates? Do you look out for people’s feelings? Do you start talking over others? Do you become overly critical in response to conflict? Even if you don’t know, your team probably does, and they want more of the positive and less of the negative from you.

Act as mediator

While you can’t control others, you can act as their mediator. Managers who don’t want individuals repeatedly coming to them to solve conflicts will have more success if those in conflict come to an agreement together. If they are involved in making a decision, they are more likely to follow through on it and learn skills to engage in future conflicts without your intervention.

Managers may choose to meet with each involved person independently or as a group. However these meetings occur, you should ask everyone to focus on reaching an agreement rather than convincing you of the superiority of their arguments.

Ask questions that will help you and others understand the disagreement. Bring their positions, interests, and priorities into clearer focus. You might want to restate their comments, rephrasing comments in a more positive way. Managers should express empathy for the difficulties experienced, but not imply support for one person’s position over another’s.

You may have to set ground rules for discussions, although it’s better if the team has already set them together before a conflict arises. For very serious conflicts, you may want to set a ground rule that if things get disrespectful you will end the session and bring in HR, EAP, or another outside resource.

If the conflict includes a discrimination or sexual harassment complaint, you’ll need to follow your organization’s formal complaint procedures.

“Explain that you see your role as helping them find a mutually acceptable resolution to their conflict, but also to ensure that the resolution does not have negative implications for the team or the organization. Make clear that deciding whether a particular agreement is acceptable requires their buy-in and yours. And then set out some rules for whenever you meet together. For example, treat each with respect and don’t interrupt.” Jeanne M. Brett and Stephen B. Goldberg in How to Handle a Disagreement on Your Team

Conflict can be positive

Not all conflict has a negative effect on team performance. Debate that is focused on concepts and ideas and avoids mean-spirited, personal attacks can be very productive. Teams might not even recognize it as conflict.

What does productive conflict look like? The Five Behaviors® Team Development profile offers these examples:

  • Team members voice their opinions even at the risk of causing disagreement.
  • Team members solicit one another’s opinions during meetings.
  • When conflict occurs, the team confronts and deals with the issue before moving to another subject.
  • During team meetings, the most important—and difficult—issues are discussed.

What does this mean for the manager?

You don’t need to automatically step in when things get emotional. Step in if things get personal or abusive. Otherwise, the passion your team is showing can lead to great ideas and problem-solving.

Seek out opinions. Don’t just have an open-door policy. Ask for feedback. Provide multiple ways for people to offer it. Show that you will take feedback and act on it.

Even when you have the authority to make a decision, consider giving your team the opportunity to weigh in. The collaborative process might lead to a better decision. It will certainly lead to better buy-in from your team.

Managers need not be frightened of conflict on their teams. Conflict doesn’t have to lead to failed and strained relationships. Learning to respond to team conflicts is an essential skill all managers should develop.

Debate that is focused on concepts and ideas and avoids mean-spirited, personal attacks can be very productive. Teams might not even recognize it as conflict.

Tools for managing conflict

The Five Behaviors®

Team Development

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Everything DiSC®

Productive Conflict

Turn conflict into a positive, constructive force.
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