Team conflict: Eight experts weigh in

Three co-workers in conflict
When people are working together on a daily basis, conflict is inevitable. Even the tightest of teams will come up against conflict at some point. While it’s impossible to avoid conflicts altogether, if handled right, constructive conflict can actually work to bring a team closer together. We hear from psychologists and HR experts about how to successfully manage team conflict.

To build a strong team you first need to recognise, respect and appreciate the different personalities of your team members. Knowing the personalities at play will help you resolve conflict quickly and efficiently while maintaining a healthy working environment and keeping your team aligned.

What is team conflict?

Team conflict happens when people disagree over the goals, methods or requirements of the team. Conflicts can also arise due to differing personalities on a team.

“People with entrepreneurial interests tend to be action-oriented and intuitive,” Kenneth Matos, Director of People Science at Culture Amp explains. “As a result, within many SMEs, attention is often focused on the business problem being discussed without recognising the interpersonal issues fuelling serious conflicts.”

Leaders who understand the personalities within their team are best positioned to address the conflict quickly and efficiently. Acknowledging and dealing with conflict fast will help prevent numerous negative side-effects, particularly on productivity and morale.

Individuals with this level of empathy and expertise are invaluable to a successful team. Being able to recognise conflicts early, along with the ability to acknowledge differences with an innate understanding of the people involved, will make you more likely to find quick and peaceful resolutions.

“Conflict can foster creativity and growth or friction and dysfunction. The difference lies in whether people understand one another’s motivations.”

Three common types of team conflict

There are various types of conflict which can arise within a team. Here are three of the most common:

1. Conflicts with the boss

Differing leadership styles can sometimes lead to conflict. Managers have their own way of leading their teams. While some leaders lead from the front with a directive approach, others take a more open, inclusive, and collaborative stance.

If a boss shows little faith in an individual’s skills and ability, this can lead to micromanagement. There are cases when an employee requires – and even welcomes – this level of management. As a manager it is important to be aware of your particular management style. To avoid this kind of conflict you may need to adjust your approach to suit the individual needs of your team members.

2. Conflict with a colleague

Tensions can arise among colleagues for a number of reasons. Unjust recognition, perceived favouritism, misaligned workloads and differing opinions on how best to complete a task all have the potential for conflict. However, some of the most difficult conflicts with colleagues come about due to egos, office politics and differing personalities.

No-one truly gets along with every person they meet, but it’s important to understand differences between co-workers and find ways to work together productively. Chances are, these differences could lead to mutual benefit. By learning to deploy different strengths in the right way, everyone could profit.

3. Task-based conflicts

Task-based conflicts arise when team members are reliant on each other to successfully complete a project. Should one member of the team fail to complete their responsibilities on time or correctly, it will have a detrimental effect on team productivity. If the problem is recurring, it will effect overall morale and motivations.

When one person is dragging and getting away with it, this could rub off and the whole team can become dysfunctional in completing the job on time.

“Each (type of conflict) benefits from a different approach,” says Peter Ryding, CEO mentor and founder of your Virtual Interactive Coach. “However, across all aspects of conflict there are some common solutions. These include listening actively, knowing the personality types you are dealing with and standing in their shoes, and seeking a win-win outcome for everyone.”

How to manage different types of conflict

Conflict: Personality clashes

One of the most common causes for team conflict stems from disagreements about the way things should be done.

“Some people like to plan projects down to the last detail well in advance. Others prefer to skip the planning and tackle problems as they come,” says Dr Ryne Sherman, Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessments.

“The first kind of person feels stressed and disoriented by a lack of plans, whereas the second kind of person feels bored and annoyed by the time spent planning.” This inevitably results in conflict about how much time should be spent planning.

Solution:

Setting ground rules and reinforcing organisational values will ensure that a team is working to the same set of standards.

It’s unrealistic to think people will agree all the time but, says founder and CEO of The TCM Group, David Liddle, “If everyone is clear about what is happening and why and feels they have been part of the decision-making process, it is much less likely that conflict will arise.”

Conflict: Perception of fairness

Who gets credit for team performance can lead to conflict. When a team is responsible for a project, sometimes it can seem that some team members appear to put in more effort than others.

As Dr Sherman can testify, “Even under circumstances where everyone puts in equal effort, the more narcissistic among the group are bound to perceive that they worked harder than everyone else.”

Another problem in this area is accusations of favouritism. “Managers need to have their antennae tuned for resentment over the way work is being allocated or staff are being managed,” Liddle explains.

“All things may not be equal, especially in remote teams, where personal circumstances dictate that some may be working restricted hours while others are full-on.”

Solution:

“Managers need to be open about how everyone is working and why, to avoid colleagues feeling they are unfairly having to take on extra work, pick up the dull jobs or get involved in tasks normally outside their remit,” Liddle says.

One of the best ways to avoid conflicts over fairness is to “set clear operational norms and performance criteria,” adds Sherman. “Research on team effectiveness tells us that high-performing teams have clear norms for communication, how decisions are made, and how planning gets done.”

This is an important aspect of avoiding conflict arising within your team.

“High-performing teams have a clear sense of their objective and hold each other accountable for results that achieve that objective.”

Conflict: Fear of change

Human beings are hard-wired to resist change and when that change feels like it is going to affect our career or put our livelihoods at risk, this can lead to tension and, therefore, result in conflict.

Team members may “fear they will lose status, become less relevant, lose control or authority,” says Matthew Emerson, Founder and Managing Director at Blackmore Four.

Solution:

“People don’t readily share these feelings,” so, Emerson advises, it’s important to “consciously look out for the signs and be more socially and emotionally intelligent to address this with sensitivity and compassion.”

“Engage people in conversation about how to achieve common goals alongside identifying and addressing areas of conflict.”

Be vigilant and when you spot signs of concern don’t delay in talking individually to team members who are showing signs of feeling unsettled.

Three strategies for managing conflict within a team

1. Understand both sides of story

“Sometimes an incident will happen and it looks as if one party is completely in the wrong, but understanding where they are coming from, makes a huge difference,” says Dawn Morton-Young, from Employee Angels.

“Things like cultural perspectives and personal experiences can make people see things in a way that may not be shared by others. This does not mean that their perspective and experience isn’t valid, and can help when looking for tools to resolve the conflict.”

“Understanding both sides is the pre-requisite to the key thing in conflict management.”

“Once both parties have listened to the point of view of the person they are in conflict with and understand the impact an ongoing conflict is having on the rest of the team, people are willing to try and put their differences aside and work together.” Morton-Young says.

2. Don’t ignore trivial disagreements

Even the smallest disagreements within a team should be resolved quickly. Allowing things to fester will lead to more deep-seated issues.

With over 15 years’ experience in HR, recruitment and senior leadership consultancy, Laura Callahan of Willow HR explains that “sometimes the real conflict isn’t easy to spot.” If the conflict appears trivial, dig a little deeper, especially if the conflict has been ongoing for some time.

“Often with conflict,” Callahan says, “you don’t deal with the immediate issue, there is a back story that needs to be taken into account.”

This is something all the experts agree on. As David Liddle says, “If disputes or bad feeling do start to arise, it’s easy to think that if you brush it under the carpet, it will go away. But now is definitely not the time to press pause when it comes to conflict management.”

“Step in at the earliest possible stage to avoid small niggles turning into major meltdowns. Encourage people to talk about how they are feeling and to hear each other in an empathetic way.”

3. See things from another perspective

When you’re managing a team, being able to stand back and view things from another perspective is an important skill. This, Head of Development at Pearn Kandola, Stuart Duff explains, is called “perspective taking”.

“Perspective taking is the skill of seeing things from another point of view, anticipating how someone may feel or react to an event, taking time to listen to their argument before making your decision and demonstrating understanding of the situation.”

Duff offers six useful steps you can use to develop this skill:

  1. Suspend your own views, opinions or judgements for a moment
  2. Ask how the situation could look from the other person’s perspective
  3. Check your understanding of the issue
  4. Avoid the temptation to explain or justify – it just winds the other person up
  5. Visualise how the other person is feeling about the issue
  6. Convey empathy for their position or situation
Being aware of the common causes of conflict and knowing how to manage different personalities will help you spot and resolve problems early, protect team morale and prevent loss productivity.

Related articles:

An interview with psychologist and leadership expert Dr Ryne Sherman

Ten common team challenges – and how to overcome them

A business psychologist’s advice to HR managers during COVID-19

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