Handling team conflict well distinguishes outstanding leaders.
You’ve got a clear focus on what matters most, your team seems to work well together, but then you get that call: “I need to talk to you about …” It’s conflict, a disagreement, or a clash of personalities. What you do next will reinforce your leadership and influence—or erode your credibility. Team conflict can feel like quicksand and a distraction from your work, but it’s an excellent opportunity to improve morale and productivity.
Team Conflict is Unavoidable
Early in my career, my boss Jim, the Executive Vice President, took me to lunch at a popular spot for business meetings where the dining room was packed and bustling. Apparently, he’d seen me struggling with a common problem new leaders face and chose this lunch to deliver some coaching.
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
Here are six steps you can take to address conflict effectively, build healthy professional relationships, and help your team maintain their focus on what matters most.
1. Reflect to Connect
When a team member comes to you with a frustration, complaint, or problem, the most effective thing you can do to build a productive conversation is to acknowledge their emotion. When they know you’ve heard them, it diffuses some of the emotional intensity and builds a connection that allows you to move to constructive next steps.
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
Once you’ve acknowledged the person’s feelings, your next step is to get more information. Your actions going forward depend on the specific circumstances so it’s vital to know what’s happening. There are three questions you can ask to quickly assess the situation:
- What do you want me to 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?
After you ask these three questions, you will likely have enough information to diagnose the situation. Here are some of the most common types of team conflict to look for:
- 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 the person doesn’t need any action and just needed to blow off steam, your reflect-to-connect will likely be all they need to get back to work. For problems, however, the solution will depend on the specific situation. Here are a few examples:
- 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
Whatever the next steps you and the people involved agree on, be sure to schedule a time in the future where you will all review what happened and ensure that everyone followed through on their commitments and responsibilities. Scheduling the finish ensures that you won’t repeatedly have to revisit this same team conflict.
6. Bonus: Equip Your Team to Resolve Conflict Together
One of the most effective ways you can help your team to resolve conflict is to give them the tools to have meaningful conversations with one another and the expectation that they will use them. The highest-performing teams don’t shy away from conflict. They embrace it and understand that every disagreement is an opportunity to build relationships and improve results.
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.
Team conflict can be productive–and certainly shouldn’t consume you with other people’s drama. You will energize your people and maintain productivity when you acknowledge their emotions, ask a few key questions, create an appropriate path forward, and follow up to ensure everyone followed through.