Resolving Team Conflict
Face Differences, Strengthen Teams
Your people bring different experiences, perspectives and values to your team. This diversity can improve problem solving, spark innovation, and drive performance.
But sometimes differences can also lead to misunderstanding, conflict and resentment. In this article, we'll look at ways to identify and resolve conflict in your team, and to keep working relationships healthy and productive.
First, we'll highlight a few general skills and approaches a manager can call on in conflict situations. Then we'll look at a five-step process for applying those skills in practice.
Conflict Resolution Skills for Managers
By utilizing the following approaches, managers will likely be able to stop conflict before it gets out of hand.
Leaving someone out of an email chain, an inappropriate personal remark, or a flash argument... conflict often starts with small disagreements that escalate fast. So if you spot conflict, don't leave it to team members or HR to resolve – take action! This shows that you treat conflict seriously and won't condone destructive behavior.
Signs of conflict can be subtle, but you can detect them by being aware of the interactions within your team. Things to look out for include:
- Body language, such as crossed arms or leaning away from people.
- Facial expressions, such as frowning or gazing down.
- Tone of voice, such as a cutting, disparaging or dismissive way of speaking.
The better you know your individual team members, the more easily you'll pick up on cues and spot tensions that may be lurking under the surface. As well as the details of the conflict, keep in mind that you may need to consider if competing values are contributing to the tension.
Develop your emotional intelligence to better identify and manage the emotions of your team members.
Be Fair and Impartial
Even if you agree with one or more individuals in a conflicting team, make sure that you remain objective.
Give everyone the time and opportunity to present their own perspective on events and to respond to any criticism. It's vital that all parties are able to state their case and are listened to.
Step in When Needed
Don't allow certain individuals to dominate the conversation or bully more reserved colleagues. If one person is constantly talking over others, keep your questions directed at the person being interrupted.
If people still attempt to interrupt, politely ask them to wait until their co-worker has finished before inviting their point of view.
When facilitating a conflict discussion, avoid stating as facts things that you only think you know or may have heard. For example, it's best to use phrases like, "As far as I'm aware," or, "As I understand it."
This also allows for the possibility that your understanding is wrong or incomplete. And it creates an opportunity for the conflicting parties to restate their cases and clarify misunderstandings.
So, it's important to be patient and persevere. Read our article The Role of the Facilitator for more ways to move talks forward.
Conflict Management Steps
When a situation gets out of hand, you may need to step in as a direct facilitator, with a targeted approach to resolving team conflict.
First, make sure that team members understand basic conflict resolution skills. You can point them to our article Conflict Resolution to learn more about the different types and causes of conflict.
Next, follow these five steps, adapted from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) framework. 
1. Speak to Team Members Individually
Start by having an informal one-on-one with each team member involved in the conflict. This way you can hear people's concerns in a safe, confidential setting. In these meetings:
- Avoid making assumptions and let people open up in their own time.
- Reassure the employees that the discussion is confidential.
- Ask each party the same questions to remain impartial.
2. Bring People Together
Once you've got a better understanding of the conflict and everyone's perspectives, it's time to bring the relevant parties together and act as a moderator.
Set some ground rules before getting the conversation underway. Encourage team members to listen to one another, respect each other's points of view, and not interrupt or make personal comments. During the conversation:
- Moderate to keep the tone of the conversation calm and non-threatening.
- Encourage active listening so people really understand where the other person is coming from.
- Encourage individuals to share ideas. What do they want or need? What would they be prepared to commit to? Encourage them to brainstorm some solutions.
- Ask them about situations where they've worked well together in the past. See if they can build on those positive experiences.
If the discussion becomes heated, pause it and reconvene when everyone's had a chance to calm down. You should also be on alert for any passive-aggressive behavior.
Read our article Managing Emotion in Your Team for more tips for measured talks.
3. Ask the Wider Team for Ideas
When a conflict affects the whole team, provided it's not sensitive or confidential, you can ask for everyone's perspective.
Talking things out helps you and your team to consider different assumptions, beliefs and decision-making approaches. This can also be a part of creating a "psychologically safe" environment, where people feel comfortable sharing ideas and concerns, thus preventing future conflicts.
4. Draw up a Plan
Ask the parties to detail agreed-on actions for reconciliation. And get each to commit to this strategy. You can draw up a timetable for actions, ticking them off as and when they are achieved. Hold all relevant parties accountable.
5. Follow up
Ensure that issues have been resolved properly by following up on the situation. For example, people may still feel aggrieved but not want to drag things out. You can use one-on-ones to prevent old disagreements from resurfacing. And try an anonymous team survey to get feedback and reveal any lingering frustrations.
Discover more ways to manage disputes in our article Resolving Workplace Conflict Through Mediation.
Seek Conflict Resolution Guidance and Support
When you're faced with a challenging conflict situation in your team and are unsure how to handle it, seek support from a trusted colleague, your line manager, or your HR department.
If your efforts at conflict resolution don't work, you have to be willing to pursue formal procedures if necessary. And some situations, such as harassment, discrimination or bullying, require a formal disciplinary process to be followed. In these instances, or if you are in any doubt, liaise with your HR team for advice.
Reflect on Your Conflict Management Skills
Consider what you did well and where you could improve after handling a conflict situation in your team. Solicit feedback from the team members involved to find out how effective they felt you were at helping resolve the situation.
Now think about structural or procedural improvements you can make to prevent future conflict. These could be:
- Setting clear goals for every team member – when people experience the right amount of pressure, they perform well.
- Make sure that people's responsibilities match their skills. Offer learning and development opportunities to plug skills gaps and help your people to realize their career aspirations.
- Using regular one-on-ones to sound out potential sources of future conflict.
As the CIPD concludes, the key to resolving conflict is to, "Build an environment in your team that is open, respectful, kind, fair and consistent, in which people feel 'psychologically safe.'"
Team conflict is natural. But by practicing the conflict resolution skills we outline here, you'll be able to spot and deal with issues before they escalate. To avoid team conflict, be proactive, observe, be impartial, step in when needed, avoid assumptions, and be patient.
If team conflict persists, address it by mediating and implementing these five steps:
- Speak to team members individually.
- Bring people together.
- Ask the wider team for ideas.
- Draw up a plan.
- Follow up.
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