How to Deal with Team Conflict

how to deal with team conflict

How to Deal with Team Conflict

Handling team conflict well distinguishes outstanding leaders

6 Ways to Deal with Team Conflict

  1. Reflect to Connect
  2. Gather Information with Three Quick Questions
  3. Diagnose the Situation: Is this a vent or a problem that needs to be solved?
  4. [For Problems] Discuss and Choose an Appropriate Solution
  5. Schedule the Finish
  6. Bonus: Equip Your Team to Resolve Conflict Together

Team Conflict is Unavoidable

As we waited for our food to arrive, I got up to wash my hands. Jim stopped me for a moment and gave me an assignment: “Take the long way through the restaurant to and from the washroom. Walk slowly and catch the bits of conversation you hear.”

I followed his strange instructions and when I returned to the table, Jim said, “Of the conversations you heard, how many of them were complaining–about their boss, a co-worker, or a problem at work?”

“Half or more, from what I heard,” I answered.

He nodded. “And that’s normal. It’s human nature to complain. You can’t respond to every complaint you hear. Not every complaint needs a solution. And complaints don’t necessarily mean anything’s wrong.”

It was an important lesson for a young leader: conflict between people is unavoidable. Since then, I also discovered the opportunity when a team member brings you a complaint. Depending on the circumstance, it may be an opportunity for them to grow, for you to improve your leadership, or a moment to connect and build a stronger team.

How to Address Team Conflict Productively

1. Reflect to Connect

We call this process of acknowledging emotion “reflect to connect” because you are reflecting the emotion you observed and making sure you understand what’s on their mind.

For example: “It sounds like you’re really frustrated with the lack of response from marketing and that’s sapping your motivation. Do I have that right?”

Note: you’re not telling them that their feelings are right or wrong. When you reflect, you are checking for understanding and creating a common starting place for the conversation.

2. Gather Information with Three Quick Questions

  • What do you want me know? — I learned this question from trial attorney Heather Hansen. It’s a fantastic question to help draw out what is most meaningful to the person who brought you the issue.
  • How might I help here? — The power of this question is that it quickly reveals whether the other person just wants to blow off steam or has a problem. It also gives you insight into how they perceive the problem.
  • Should the three (or more) of us talk together? — This question is particularly helpful in those situations where you suspect the person might be focused on something other than solving the problem (like undermining a colleague or currying favor). For people who complain and want to dump their problems on you, it helps maintain mutual responsibility.

3. Diagnose the Situation: Is this a vent or a problem that needs to be solved?

  • The person just needs to vent and get a frustration off their chest
  • There’s a misunderstanding
  • One party is unresponsive or sees priorities differently
  • People are working toward different goals
  • There’s a style or personality conflict
  • You discover toxic behavior

4. [For Problems] Discuss and Choose an Appropriate Solution

  • If you identify a misunderstanding, equipping the person to have the discussion and clarify what’s happening might be appropriate.
  • Sometimes you’ll find that you caused the problem. Perhaps your statement of goals is unclear or you haven’t clarified how values should resolve when in conflict. In these cases, your best path forward is to convene the interested parties and give them the clarity they need.
  • For other cases of unresponsive peers, personality or style conflicts, or other situations where a discussion will help, you may bring the people together and discuss the situation and come to a mutual understanding of the way forward.
  • When you discover toxic or abusive behavior, you and/or your HR team may formally intervene.

5. Schedule the Finish

6. Bonus: Equip Your Team to Resolve Conflict Together

One of the most important tools to help build this skill is the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method for tough conversations. Its balanced approach will help your team members build their relationships while achieving results. And for those situations where they can’t resolve the issue because the problem is a lack of clarity at a higher level, they will be able to figure that out and come to you with a solution request, rather than a more vague complaint.

Your Turn

What would you add? Leave a comment and share your best tip for helping your team resolve conflict, build better relationships, and get back to what matters most.

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David M. Dye

David M. Dye

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I work with human-centered leaders to help them get results without sacrificing their humanity. I’m an author, consultant, podcast host, and love to hike.