A Leader's Guide to Managing Team Conflict

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The Workplace

In any workplace, conflict is inevitable. Whether it arises from differing opinions, personalities, or goals, how leaders manage these conflicts can make the difference between a team that thrives and one that flounders. As a leader, it’s essential to approach conflicts with a strategic mindset, fostering an environment where disagreements are seen as opportunities for growth and innovation rather than obstacles to progress.

"Conflict resolution is the cornerstone of effective leadership. Leaders who can navigate disagreements with grace and empathy are best equipped to guide their organizations through times of uncertainty and change."

Workplace Conflicts

Many people equate the word “conflict” with fighting, blaming, or arguing. However, conflict is defined as the “condition in which people’s concerns—the things they care about—appear to be incompatible.” In other words, it’s a situation where your opinions, ideas, or perspectives differ from others. It can be a disagreement over issues like budgets, timelines, schedules, or change implementation.

How you chose to address conflict is up to you. In fact quite a bit of work has been done on the different styles of conflict resolution (please note that you are never just one style your interactions, the context will also have influence over your conflict response. (See our other articles on conflict).

This model is adapted from the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Understanding different conflict handling modes can help you improve communication, which paves the way for everyone to find solutions, drive performance, reduce psychosocial harm and thrive!

Managing Threats

Workplace threats can take on numerous forms (interestingly when we ask people has anyone experienced any of the below we get a unanimous response)  including:

People Plus Science research identified that most common places for workplace threats/conflict are:

  • In meetings
  • Across change management/transformation projects
  • Within the leadership team
  • Within the first 6months of starting a new role
  • Annual reviews (if they occur at all)
  • The onboarding of a new member to the team
  • New leadership
The most common root causes of threats (People Plus Science – Psychological Safety and Wellness Reviews( 2023- 2024)
  • Poor Communication: Inadequate communication channels or styles can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and ultimately, social threats. Misinterpretation of messages or lack of clarity in communication can create tension among coworkers.
  • Lack of Trust: When there is a lack of trust among team members or between employees and management, it can foster a toxic work environment. Suspicion, skepticism, and betrayal erode relationships and contribute to social threats such as gossiping, ostracism, or retaliation.
  • Unresolved Conflicts: Workplace conflicts, whether personal or professional, can escalate into social threats if left unresolved. Issues related to workload distribution, personality clashes, or differing work styles can lead to resentment, hostility, and exclusion.
  • Bullying and Harassment: Intimidation, harassment, and bullying behaviours are prevalent forms of social threats in the workplace. These behaviors may be overt or subtle and can target individuals based on factors such as gender, race, age, or sexual orientation.
  • Power Dynamics: Hierarchical structures and power imbalances within organisations can create social threats, particularly when individuals misuse their authority or engage in favoritism. Employees may feel marginalized, oppressed, or exploited, leading to feelings of resentment and disengagement.
  • Cultural Differences: Workplace diversity can enrich organizational culture, but it can also lead to social threats if not managed effectively. Cultural misunderstandings, stereotypes, and biases may result in discrimination, exclusion, or microaggressions.
  • Workplace Politics: Office politics and rivalries can fuel social threats by undermining collaboration and fostering a competitive environment. Manipulative tactics, cliques, and alliances may form, alienating certain individuals and disrupting teamwork.
  • Stress and Burnout: High levels of stress, excessive workloads, and burnout can exacerbate social threats in the workplace. Irritability, emotional volatility, and decreased empathy may lead to conflict escalation and strained relationships among colleagues.
  • Leadership skills gap: Many leaders have been promoted largely due to technical capability rather than “people skills”. In addition organisations have failed to invest in leadership and succession planning and development in the “people skills area”. A trend towards quick, accelerated digital learning has meant that skills such as conversations, negotiation, conflict resolution are rare yet highly sought by leaders (76% say they would prefer to have had or have additional leadership training).

“Conflict resolution is not about avoiding disagreements, but about transforming them into opportunities for learning, growth, and innovation.” – Peter Senge

Mitigating Threats

There are three levels of accountability that People Plus Science address in organisational resilience which includes mitigating threats.

  1. Organisational:  Those that are owned by the organisational leaders. (organisational resilience, psychological safety, culture, accountability frameworks, values)
  2. Team:  Those that are owned by the team in which people work within the majority of the time and the decision making teams they participate in. (social intelligence)
  3. Individual: as individuals we can regulate and internalise scientific inquiry to understand ourselves better (emotional intelligence + social intelligence)  

Migitating threats at organisational + team level

1. Communication:

Effective communication is fundamental in preventing and resolving workplace threats. It involves:

  • Creating a psychologically safe work environment: Create workplaces where people feel that they belong, they feel safe to speak up, they are valued, they can ask for help, they can problem solve and innovate without fear. 
  • Clear Channels: Establishing clear channels of communication where employees feel comfortable expressing concerns or reporting incidents.
  • Transparency: Providing regular updates and transparent information about organisational changes, policies, and procedures.
  • Active Listening: Encouraging active listening among employees and leaders to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and understood.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Implementing feedback mechanisms, such as surveys or suggestion boxes, to gather input from employees and address potential issues promptly.

2. Conflict Resolution:

Proactive conflict resolution strategies can help prevent escalations and foster a more harmonious work environment. This includes:

  • Mediation: Utilising trained mediators to facilitate discussions and find mutually acceptable resolutions to conflicts.
  • Training Programs: Providing conflict resolution training to employees and managers to equip them with the skills necessary to navigate disagreements constructively.
  • Establishing Policies: Developing clear policies and procedures for addressing conflicts and promoting a culture of respect and collaboration.

3. Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives:

Promoting diversity and inclusion enhances organizational resilience and reduces the likelihood of social threats. This involves:

  • Diverse Hiring Practices: Implementing inclusive hiring practices to attract and retain a diverse workforce.
  • Training and Awareness Programs: Conducting diversity training and awareness programs to promote understanding, empathy, and cultural competence.
  • Inclusive Policies: Developing inclusive policies and practices that accommodate various backgrounds, perspectives, and needs.

4. Mental Health Support:

Prioritizing mental health support contributes to employee well-being and resilience. This includes:

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Offering confidential counseling services and resources to support employees facing personal or work-related challenges.
  • Promoting Work-Life Balance: Encouraging work-life balance through flexible scheduling, remote work options, and wellness initiatives.
  • Training and Awareness: Providing training on mental health awareness and destigmatising conversations around mental health in the workplace.

5. Organisational Culture Development:

Creating a positive organisational culture fosters a sense of belonging and psychological safety. This involves:

  • Leadership Role Modeling: Encouraging leaders to model behaviors that promote respect, trust, and open communication.
  • Values Alignment: Ensuring organisational values align with principles of fairness, integrity, and inclusivity.
  • Recognition and Rewards: Recognising and rewarding behaviors that contribute to a positive work environment, such as collaboration, innovation, and empathy.

10 Ways to improve your conflict facilitation skills

  1. Promote Open Communication: Encourage team members to express their viewpoints openly and listen actively to understand their perspectives. Create a culture of openness and respect where conflicts can be addressed constructively.

  2. Foster Transparency: Be transparent about goals, expectations, and decision-making processes to minimise misunderstandings and promote trust among team members.

  3. Facilitate Constructive Conflict Resolution Processes: Guide team members through conflict resolution processes, helping them identify root causes, explore solutions, and reach consensus collaboratively.

  4. Encourage Brainstorming and Creative Problem-Solving: Foster an environment where team members can brainstorm creative ideas and alternatives for resolving conflicts, encouraging innovation and collaboration.

  5. Model Effective Communication: Lead by example by demonstrating effective communication skills, active listening, and empathy in your interactions with team members.

  6. Practice Emotional Intelligence: Develop emotional intelligence skills to recognise and manage your own emotions and those of others during conflicts, fostering understanding and empathy.

  7. Provide Ongoing Support and Guidance: Offer support and guidance to team members navigating conflicts, helping them develop their conflict resolution skills and build stronger relationships.

  8. Seek Feedback and Continuous Improvement: Solicit feedback from team members on your conflict resolution skills and seek opportunities for continuous learning and improvement.

  9. Stay Calm and Neutral: Maintain your composure and avoid taking sides during conflicts, remaining impartial and focused on finding a mutually acceptable solution.

  10. Celebrate Successes: Recognise and celebrate instances of successful conflict resolution, reinforcing positive behaviors and encouraging a culture of collaboration and teamwork.

Tools

Promoting different ideas and positive debate within a team can be both productive and enjoyable. Here are some fun activities leaders can use to encourage creativity, collaboration, and constructive discussion:

  1. MICARES Framework – using the MICARES framework identify the communication preference for each person on the team.
  2. Brainstorming Sessions: Host brainstorming sessions where team members are encouraged to generate as many ideas as possible on a given topic. Use techniques like mind mapping or rapid ideation to spark creativity and inspire innovative thinking.

  3. Role-Playing Exercises: Organise role-playing exercises where team members take on different perspectives or personas related to a particular issue or challenge. This allows individuals to explore diverse viewpoints and understand alternative perspectives.

  4. Debate Competitions: Organise friendly debate competitions where team members argue for or against specific propositions or ideas. Encourage participants to research their arguments and present their viewpoints persuasively in a structured debate format.

  5. Problem-Solving Challenges: Present teams with real-world problems or challenges and challenge them to come up with creative solutions. Offer rewards or incentives for the most innovative or effective solutions, fostering healthy competition and collaboration.

  6. Gallery Walks: Set up a gallery walk where team members display their ideas or proposals on posters or whiteboards around the room. Allow participants to walk around, review each other’s ideas, and provide feedback or comments.

  7. Team Building Games: Incorporate team building games and activities that encourage collaboration, communication, and problem-solving. Games like escape rooms, scavenger hunts, or problem-solving challenges can promote teamwork and creativity.

  8. Mock Shark Tank: Organise a mock “Shark Tank” style pitch competition where team members present their ideas or projects to a panel of judges. Encourage creativity and innovation by providing opportunities for feedback and refinement.

  9. Speed Networking: Facilitate speed networking sessions where team members rotate through brief one-on-one conversations to exchange ideas and perspectives on specific topics. This allows participants to connect with colleagues they may not interact with regularly and share insights and experiences.

  10. Lunch and Learn Sessions: Host lunch and learn sessions where team members gather to discuss and debate topics of interest related to their work or industry. Provide food and beverages to create a relaxed and informal atmosphere conducive to open discussion.

  11. Storytelling Workshops: Organise storytelling workshops where team members share personal or professional anecdotes related to specific themes or topics. Encourage participants to listen actively, ask questions, and reflect on the lessons learned from each story.

Key Takeaways:

  • Managing team conflict is an essential skill for leaders in today’s workplace.
  • By promoting open communication, facilitating constructive resolution processes, and leading by example, leaders can create an environment where conflicts are viewed as opportunities for growth and collaboration rather than sources of division and discord.
  • By embracing conflict as a catalyst for positive change, leaders can empower their teams to overcome challenges, achieve their goals, and thrive in the face of adversity

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.