The Challenge of Working in Teams—Dealing with Conflict

Differences are inevitable when passionate people work together. Eventually, after a team gets through an initial orientation with a new task, members usually come to the realization that working together to accomplish a common goal is tough work.

This occurs in the “dissatisfaction” stage of team development when the team recognizes the discrepancy between what is expected of them and the reality of getting it done.   

It is not a pleasant stage.

As a leader it’s important to differentiate between the different types of conflict teams experience and to have a plan for helping the team move forward.  Here are four examples of team conflict and some advice on how a leader can intervene properly from Dr. Eunice Parisi-Carew of The Ken Blanchard Companies.

Conflict over positions, strategies or opinions

If two or three strong, but differing, positions are being argued in the group and it is getting nowhere, a leader might stop the group and ask each member to take a turn talking with no interruption or debate.  The rest are just to listen and try to understand where they are coming from and why they are posing the solution that they are.  It may go something like this. 

Leader: “Let’s stop for a minute. I want each of you state what is underneath your argument.  What is your desire, your concern, your goal, your fear or your need that leads you to that conclusion?”

In this instance, the leader’s job is to make sure everyone is heard. When the exercise is completed the leader should look for concerns or goals that people have in common. Once all are uncovered, the leader can build on any interests that are shared.  In most cases this becomes the new focus and it turns the situation from conflict to problem solving.

Mistrust or uneven communication

If some people on the team are dominating the conversation while others sit silent or appear to have dropped out, a leader might stop the process and ask each person what they need from others to feel effective in the group and how others can help. 

Another simple practice is to appoint a process observer whose job it is to focus on how the team is interacting.  If the teams gets out of kilter—it might be tempers are rising or communication is not flowing—the process observer is allowed to call time and point out their observations.  For example, “In the last five minutes we have interrupted the speaker 10 times,” or, “We keep talking over each other.”  Just knowing this fact can alter the team’s interaction.  Soon the team will catch itself.  It is harder to misbehave once you know what the impact of your behavior is.

Personality clashes

If personal styles are very different and causing conflict among team members, a team leader might administer the DISC, MBTI, or another behavioral assessment tool to help people better understand each other and learn to work together.  These tools help people understand what the other person needs.  They can also provide a common frame of reference for dealing with individual differences.

Power issues and personal agendas

Conflict that involves power issues, or strong personal agendas must sometimes be dealt with also.  The reality is that some people just do not fit on a team and a leader needs to be willing to remove them or offer them another role. This doesn’t happen often, but occasionally it is needed.  The good news is that once it is dealt with, the team usually takes a leap forward.  This should be an option only when other attempts to work with the person have failed. 

Conflict can be healthy for a team when it is channeled properly.  The challenge for leaders is knowing how and when to intervene. 

PS: To learn more about Dr. Parisi-Carew’s approach to successfully resolving conflict on teams be sure to check out her thinking in the article Don’t Leave Collaboration to Chance or in the recording of her recent webinar on Why Teams Fail—Dealing with Friction and Dissension

9 thoughts on “The Challenge of Working in Teams—Dealing with Conflict

  1. Conflict on teams seems inevitable, and healthy conflict is a valuable part of pressure testing ideas, making sure all viewpoints are considered, and keeping team members accountable. Without conflict it’s easy for team members to avoid real commitment to ideas they disagree with, but are unwilling to confront, resulting in false commitment that can devolve into blame later on.

    A technique for making the best use of conflict is to create a map of the differing positions, illustrating the assumptions, needs, or concerns that lie beneath them. Often groups are closer than they realize on a set of issues. Once they see all the perspectives and points illustrated they can differentiate between places of agreement and disagreement, and focus their conversation on finding solutions.

  2. A leader must coach the team to understand value to the organization. Team members must be focused the overall impact of their suggestions and directions. Understanding the value to the organization and not a specific department is critical.

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