How Great Leaders Manage Team Conflict

It’s no secret that conflict is a part of life and definitely a part of day-to-day business. Once you spend enough time with the same people every day, conflict is inevitable. Therefore, as a leader, you should always make enough time for conflict resolution.

There are many different causes of workplace conflict, making it a part of life for managers. Managers in most organisations are tasked with the uniquely challenging task of bringing together many people with different personalities, attitudes and skill sets and asking them to work as a cohesive singular unit.

This is why it is very rare for team projects to go smoothly. Even in simple, straightforward ones, conflict among team members often rears its ugly head. The most common reasons for this include personality and ego clashes, misunderstandings, miscommunications and basic disagreements about the work.

“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.”
Thomas Isgar

Therefore as a good leader, your responsibility is to manage team conflict and mediate between the parties involved. Keep in mind though that there are instances where the resentment between the conflicting team members is just too deep for anyone, let alone you, to resolve. You need to make peace with the fact that some conflicts cannot be resolved despite your very best efforts and that’s okay.

Make sure not to side with anyone when you manage team conflict. Don’t forget that your responsibility is to ensure that the conflicting team members can still work together as much as possible or to arrange for alternative plans to keep them both productive if they can’t work together at all anymore.

Constructive conflict can bring a team closer together if handled properly. Recognising, respecting and appreciating your team members’ differences is key to building a strong team. Resolving conflict when it does arise in a quick and proficient fashion helps maintain a strong and healthy team environment.

If not handled properly, conflict alienates and frustrates team members and gets in the way of their creativity and productivity. Here are some concrete steps you can follow to manage team conflict:

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Acknowledge the conflict

Ignoring the issues may save someone’s feelings in the short run, but don’t forget that these conflicting team members will have to work with each other again on future projects. If the unresolved issues continue to arise, the built-up resentment may eventually explode in nasty fights and arguments.

Avoid anger buildups by facing the conflict head-on and encouraging team members to let each other know as soon as possible when they disagree with another team member’s course of action. While not always pleasant, getting these small disagreements out in the open can help avoid bigger disputes.

Also, conflict can bring out the worst in us so one of the key things you need to maintain and/or restore when it is time to manage team conflict is civility and basic respect. Make sure you do not entertain destructive behaviours like pointing fingers, throwing insults, setting ultimatums and backbiting.

Clarify positions

Allow each conflicting team member to voice their opinions on the conflict and be heard without interruption and listen actively. Pay attention, ask questions for more elaboration and make sure to avoid jumping to conclusions.

Allowing each conflicting team member to explain and elucidate their stance eliminates the problem of miscommunication. Furthermore, allowing them to rationalise their opinions may bring more agreement and understanding from other team members.

Manage team conflict

Image: PikWizard

List facts and assumptions based on each position

Once each conflicting team member has been allowed to explain their stance on the conflict, list out the facts and assumptions that have been made.

The mere act of writing and/or drawing the complex facets of an argument, visually representing it out on paper and examining all the information at hand as a group can make things that seemed impossible to understand appear much clearer to the team.

If one the conflict team members is lacking in reasoning in their stance as far as the conflict goes, it will often become obvious during this step. Sometimes team members simply need to have their hesitations heard and discussed by the rest of the team.

By analysing the source of conflict together as a group, the team can move forward in agreement or to at least find some kind of consensus to work with.

Break into smaller groups and separate existing alliances

Over time, friendships naturally develop in the workplace and while they are useful for increasing employee engagement, happiness and productivity as a whole, when it comes to conflicts they can cloud team members’ judgments in determining what the right course of action to take is.

Coworkers may feel the need to agree with each other because they fear losing a friendship. By breaking up these existing alliances when discussing the resolution, you can avoid this behavior and allow each team member to view the conflict free of the persuasion of their friendships, be it implicit or explicit.

Reconvene the groups

It becomes much easier to manage team conflict once these steps have been followed and the team meets again as a whole. After smaller groups have been allowed to freely discuss issues from every angle and free from the persuasion of existing alliances, viewpoints often change, solving the initial conflict.

When your team come to a final resolution, make it a point to write a list of actionable steps that can be taken to resolve the issue. Putting the conclusion down on paper makes the solution more tangible and creates a reference point for people that wish to review the team’s decision on that conflict.

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
Dale Carnegie

Celebrate the resolution as a team

Once you have resolved the conflict, acknowledge specific contributions from individuals in the group. This will make them feel good about working towards a solution and leads to the entire team becoming more cohesive because of their united victory against the stumbling block they faced together.

Whether this celebration is something small like a congratulatory email or an afternoon off as a reward, recognising the success promotes team bonding. The key is to repeatedly reward your team for taking a smart approach to their conflict such that it becomes second nature to them every time it arises.

In Summary

Conflict can be constructive as long as it is managed and dealt with directly and quickly. By respecting the differences between people, being able to manage team conflict when it does happen, and also proactively preventing it, you will be able to maintain a healthy and creative team atmosphere.

The key for leaders looking to manage team conflict is to remain open to other people’s ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.