The keys to conflict resolution

10 May 24

Transforming groups in conflict is a vital tool for leaders.

illustrations of business negotiations.credit_shutterstock_2268636679


Team conflict can be profoundly destabilising and hard to deal with. But it’s important to recognise that having a conflict in your team is not necessarily a sign of failure. In fact, it is a perfectly healthy and normal part of team functioning, with respectful, spirited debate often leading to the innovation and new insights that organisations need if they are to meet their challenges.

The problem arises when healthy conflict is allowed to tip over into dysfunctional, damaging dispute, where different factions take up intractable, fixed positions, dialogue becomes combative, and incivility sets in.

But, managed well, the process of transforming the conflict from dysfunctional to functional could resolve the issue and even make your team stronger. 

Conflicts within teams tend to fall into one of five categories.

50/50 split. The team has been shorn into two opposing halves. The two halves have formed ‘camps’ and have aligned around a common cause.

All against one. The team is aligned against an individual within it, who is potentially at risk of group bullying or mobbing. This is a serious conflict and one of the hardest to resolve.

Meltdown. The team is riddled with feuds. Alliances appear and dissolve rapidly. Gossiping and rumours are rife. Because of its dynamic nature, team meltdown can hard to define and resolve.

Silo. This is often between rather than within teams, although it can be present in multidisciplinary project and matrix teams. Players are protective of their own departments and are reluctant to share information or resources.

Inner core. A small inner core of protagonists is in conflict, sucking in other members of the team, many of whom do not wish to be involved. Increasing levels of stress-related absence are often an early sign that something is wrong. 

Here are some practical tips to help you address the situation.

  • Listen to all the members of the team in a private meeting. Give them time to talk to you one-to-one about what they are experiencing and the effect it is having. This is a chance to build rapport, to demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity and to create a psychologically safe space. Show that you are empathetic, and ask a range of open questions. Don’t be afraid to check with each member of the team – feelings and needs are the currency of resolution.
  • Avoid making judgments about the situation, and remain impartial and objective. Don’t let the outspoken person, the charismatic team member or the wily fox affect your ability to take a dispassionate approach.
  • Bring the team together to discuss their concerns. Your role is to lead this meeting and allow everyone to have their own time to speak out and be heard in a constructive and supportive way. This kind of meeting could take a few hours, so make sure that you give yourselves enough time.
  • Engender a future focus during this meeting – invite the team to explore what a great team looks like; what needs to happen tomorrow; and how they can resolve their differences in a collaborative way.
  • Be clear what role you are going to play as a leader, what you have learnt from this situation, and how it will help to make you a better leader. Set out your own expectations and needs for the future of the team. This is a great opportunity to communicate your own aspirations and to inspire the team.
  • Finish the meeting on a positive note and summarise the agreed goals and objectives for the future of the team.

This approach should enable you to resolve the majority of issues quickly and collaboratively. In situations where parties have become locked into an intractable right/wrong mindset, an independent, external facilitator or mediator can often help to break the deadlock and get everyone back on track.

Image credit | Shutterstock

  • David Liddle
    Chief executive of the TCM Group and author of Managing Conflict: a Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace, published by Kogan Page/CIPD, 2017

Did you enjoy this article?