How to manage team conflict

Dream Teams Series

Table of Contents

Are you finding your team members constantly fighting with one another? Has it been harder to get work done because the team just doesn’t seem to be on the same page? No matter how hard you try, where there are teams, there’s often conflict—even among top performers. If left unchecked, this can cause major concerns in the form of lost productivity or even decreasing retention rates.

This course will help you better understand why conflict occurs within teams, the different kinds of conflict, and actions you can take to prepare when conflict arises.

What causes team conflict?

Many are aware that conflict can cause issues in a team, but less people are aware why it happens at all. Simply put, conflict happens because we’re all different. Everyone has unique life experiences and core values. Disagreement can arise from a clash of needs, priorities, goals, or ideas related to these personal experiences and values. Check out the activity below for the many types of conflict that can occur within teams:

Try it out! 

But this isn’t to say that differences aren’t a good thing—in fact, many cases will require your teams to be diverse in order to succeed. The real problem isn’t that we’re different, but that many lack awareness of others and themselves. To build trust and empower employees to work through disagreements, you must encourage them to understand each other’s perspectives. Without that awareness, they can’t make a conscious effort to improve their relationships.

Healthy vs. unhealthy conflict.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word conflict? For most, it’s probably a negative connotation of people communicating. However, conflict is not always a bad thing. There are actually two types of conflict: healthy and unhealthy.

Although these might look very similar on the outside, the main way to distinguish the two is by determining the intent of the conflict and how the team can use it to grow. For example, conflict can arise when someone has a different opinion on the work being done. They can say “I hate this” and provide nothing else, or they can provide their opinion to help the project or team grow. Now, let’s imagine the worker instead said, “Help me understand some of the decisions you made. I’m not sure I agree with XYZ.” This allows both parties to understand exactly why decisions are made. After the explanation, they might even agree that certain calls made were in fact the best options.

Try the activity below to see if you can determine which scenarios are unhealthy vs. healthy conflict.

Try it out! 

Even healthy conflict can go poorly if the team doesn’t feel like they’re in a safe place to interact. It may be deemed healthy, but it’s still conflict. This can be challenging for employees to address, but how they handle it is the difference between an average and a high-performing team. Don’t try to cover these situations up; instead, lean into them in a constructive way. Remind your team that conflict is inevitable. They can use it to learn from one another as long as it’s never a personal attack and is meant to instead propel the team to success.

Are some teams doomed to fail?

Think about the worst team you’ve been a part of. Were there times where you thought there was no possible solution? Are some teams doomed to fail from the beginning? In some cases, yes. There are two major reasons for this that you can avoid when building your teams.

The first can be summed up by the quote to the right from Matt Poepsel during a recent interview on team cohesion. Many organizations form teams and jump straight into the work they need to perform. This seems like an obvious choice to get quicker results, but if you’re looking to yield more from the team, start by working on the team itself.

"Teams won't work if they only
work on the work."
Matt Poepsel
SVP of Product at
The Predictive Index

Although deliverables are important, make sure you also prioritize the needs of those team members. Take the time to negotiate how each member can meet their behavioral needs before it becomes an issue. Not sure of the behavioral differences within your team? Using The Predictive Index’s Explore Team Alignment tool can show exactly where these employees fall and help facilitate the conversation.

The second reason for a team being doomed to fail is because employees were chosen to play a role on the team that they weren’t suited for. When you think about hiring an individual for a job, you want to make sure they are the right fit. This idea applies to positions on a team as well. Make sure you are constructing your team in a way that aligns with the work to be done.

For example, someone with very extraverted behavioral preferences would probably not enjoy working on a team where their role is very heads-down, working with data. Even with a generally positive team relationship, having the wrong people in the wrong seats will cause conflict and tension eventually.

Managing team conflict.

So now that you know about conflict, how do you actually manage it? There are a number of issues that can arise when working with people, so it can feel overwhelming at times. However, there are ways to make sure you are prepared when conflict occurs.

Create a conflict resolution blueprint for your team. Every case will be different, but how you handle them should generally follow the same structure. Team members should also be aware of this blueprint so everyone is on the same page when you follow those steps. This ensures accountability of all parties. The blueprint will look different for every manager but should look something like the steps below. Click each tab to see the suggested steps or download this 1-page handout.

Address the matter at the time of conflict. Letting time pass could help some but it is more likely that tension will linger or build over time if not faced immediately.

Listen to all parties involved to understand all perspectives.  In some cases, allowing each member to talk, will allow team members to see eye to eye. Some issues might have just been miscommunication that only needed a bit of mediation.

Debates like these are easily heated if not looking at the objective side. Focus on facts rather than personal opinions.

Tie the resolution to the company’s value proposition. At the end of the day, the problem needs to be fixed in a way that benefits the organization.

Follow up with all involved to confirm what was discussed and steps to be taken. It’s easy to say we’ll fix something. Actually doing it is a much more difficult thing. Ensure you and your team hold themselves accountable.

Try it out! 

The specific steps you define should resolve conflict, but the most important aspect is that it’s designed in a way for people to learn from the situation. Focus on the root cause, as opposed to any punitive measures.

No matter what steps you’ve chosen, it’s essential that you act quickly. Conflict—no matter how small—can grow into a much larger problem for your team. Start by calling a “timeout.” Put the work on hold, call a deliberate meeting to prioritize the team’s needs, and come up with a solution or plan for a solution. During these meetings, the team should discuss what from the team might have changed and what is causing tensions to rise. Finally, be sure to follow through with an action plan. Simply talking about it is only the first step. Holding not only the team but yourself accountable is the only way to truly resolve conflict.

Following these basic principles will help you manage the conflict your team experiences and help them learn to grow from it.

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