4 Types of Team Conflict—And How to Deal With Each Effectively

conflict resolution strategies - doodle on a cocktail napkin wit 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, teams expert, and coauthor of the upcoming book, Collaboration Begins With You.

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.


Editor’s Note: This post previously appeared in LeaderChat as The Challenge of Working In Teams—Dealing With Conflict.



13 thoughts on “4 Types of Team Conflict—And How to Deal With Each Effectively

  1. Great points David! However…I believe, that at times, when dealing with conflict over positions, strategies or opinions, the ultimate decision (when not agreed on) falls on the leader.

    • Hi Ron–that’s always a challenge for a leader–when do they intervene to make a decision versus continuing to facilitate the group toward a decision? I know that I’ve erred on stepping in early when I’ve sensed a team was lost–only to find out later that I may have deprived the team of a growth opportunity. It’s hard when you are in the thick of it. What are others’ experiences?

  2. Reblogged this on Teacher related and commented:
    It sounds cliche but I believe that “Team work make the dream work.” so conflict within in a team must be handled appropriately before it harms the team. This article provides some good ideas on where to start.

    • Hi Yvette–thanks for your comment (and reblog!) Bringing people together with different opinions is a double-edge sword. You want the difference of opinion to possibly identify new and different ways of doing things but you have to be prepared to deal with the conflict that occurs when passionate, committed people come together to solve a problem or address an issue. Dr. Eunice Parisi-Carew has identified some great solutions here–any other strategies that people have seen work?

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