3 lessons for leaders to navigate conflict

If there’s one thing that’ll get most managers in a pickle, it’s dealing with conflict in their team.

That tug of war. The slight that’s festering. The miscommunication that’s led to simmering, surly and sulky. The bun fight that’s bigger than Ben Hur…

Most of us (me included) would rather sidestep the whole messy thing like Fred Astaire, than front foot and step into the tension tango.

Spoiler alert: If you’re picturing a leadership utopia where your team is as peaceful and zen as the Dalai lama, it ain’t going to happen. I’m sorry to rain on your parade.

But never fear, dear leader. This week, The Leader’s Digest is your friend and your teacher when it comes to approaching conflict in your team.  

First, some important facts to start our lesson.

Lesson one – The basics when it comes to conflict in teams

  1. Conflict is inevitable in teams.Differences of opinion are not only inescapable, they can be useful.When dealt with well, conflict can promote collaboration, innovation and better understanding and decision making.However, the first point to recognise is that whenever you get a bunch of people together, conflict is part of the jam. And that conflict can be overt or unspoken.
  2. Not all conflict is bad.In fact, there’s the good kind you want to foster and encourage – and the other kind which you can help your team to work through (more on that later). What do I mean when I say ‘good conflict’?  High performing teams have diverse approaches, worldviews, strengths and perspectives. They don’t avoid disagreement on issues – they lean into it. They have different ideas on how to approach or solve team challenges – and they have the necessary psychological safety to share their perspective. If you have group think in a team, you’re in trouble. In fact, as Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team says, “avoidance of conflict is the second major dysfunction of a team, after a lack of trust. Conflict is necessary; it creates commitment. To step it out, mine for conflict – this means searching for people’s opinions. Consider it as a ‘pursuit for truth’ ”
  3. Managing conflict is part of your job as a leader.Soz ‘bout it, but it’s part of your job. In the UK, around 38% of employees experience interpersonal conflict per year. In the U.S., employees spend almost three hours involved in conflict every week!. And here in Aotearoa, according to FairWay Resolution Limited’s research findings into the extent of conflict in New Zealand workplaces, almost one quarter (24 per cent) of employees had experienced at least one disagreement or argument at work that distracted or prevented them from doing their job, within a 12-month period. Added up, conflict can consume up to 40% of a manager’s time. Plussince the pandemic began,  more people are working in remote and hybrid environments that make it harder to spot and work through conflict when it happens. Who needs a cup of tea and a lie down?
  4. You might not ever relish conflict, but you can get better at managing it.Conflict for most of us is uncomfortable. Difficult conversations will usually always be a bit angst-ridden. But if we can learn some tools to do it better – practice, reflect and learn – we’ll become more comfortable with the discomfort of being uncomfortable. We’ll build that muscle. See this blog of mine on this concept. 
  5. If you find it hard, you’re not alone.According to research from HBR, conflict management is one of the biggest fears held by new managers.

Lesson two – There are different types of conflict; knowing which one(s) are at play is your first step.

According to Amy Gallo, author of HBR’s Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, there are four types:

  1. Task conflict– tension around the ‘what’ of the work – the goal, project or task itself.
  2. Process conflict – conflict about the ‘how’ of the work, the process we are or are not taking (or should take)
  3. Status conflict – this is all about authority, power and control, aka “who’s in charge?”
  4. Relationship conflict – tension that’s personal and to do with the relationship, usually stemming from unresolved conflict from the above three.

Sometimes it’s one of these that’s at the root of the conflict. More often, there’s multiple causes at play. A nice little conflict stew, if you will.

Lesson three – Some useful pointers when dealing with conflict between team members

Step one: Get curious yourself about this current combat.It may be difficult at times but work hard to remain impartial. Look at the conflict with respect, equity and fairness for both parties at the centre of your leadership practice.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Recognise you don’t have all the information. Hold your assumptions lightly. Go further, Sherlock. Are there organisational systems, company culture or external factors that might be contributing to this discord? Look in the mirror. Maybe you haven’t given enough clarity on performance standards, time constraints, resources or expectations.

Step two: Try and get them to resolve it themselves first.A bit like a parent who can easily get drawn into scraps between siblings, it can be time consuming, draining and frankly, unnecessary.

If you can coach, guide and equip your team with the skills to navigate and work through conflict themselves, it’ll not only be great skill development and self-awareness building for them, but it’ll also mean you don’t have to resolve it yourself. Yay.

  1. Explore the conflict with them both in separate, private conversations. Some useful questions to ask them and reflect on are:

a. What is the most important value or principle that’s at play in this conflict? Talk through the four types of conflict and get them to reflect on which ones they think might be playing into this conflict.

b. Imagine for a moment what the other person might say or think from their perspective? This gets them to drop the fundamental attribution error, a gnarly little gremlin we all suffer from.

c. If someone completely objective and wise were to look at this situation, what might they see and say?

d. What’s your 51% responsibility in this situation? Check out this blog for what I mean by the 51% rule.

e. How are you different in how you both like to communicate? How might that be impacting this situation?

f. What do you think you both want? What are some things you are both aligned on? Where are the areas you’re both on the same page? Start there. What are your underlying needs and interests? What do you think their underlying needs and interests are, if you were to adopt a positive intent towards the other person?  

g. If you were the other person, just for a moment, what would they be saying and feeling in this situation, do you think?

h. How would you like me to approach this as the leader of you both if I was being impartial and fair?

  1. Sometimes, they try to resolve it themselves and can’t. Sigh. So, you might have to sit down with them both. That’s why you get the title of manager and are probably getting paid more than them 😊 If that’s what’s required, this might help:

a. Make sure they have both reflected on the above questions first, and ideally have written down their answers.

b. Set up ground rules with them both about the conversation(s) you’re about to have. This creates psychological safety for everyone. See here for what I mean.

c. Do your own preparation. Not only on how you might approach the conversations, but also how you’re going to facilitate the conversations with empathy, impartiality and emotional control. What might trigger you and what will you do when that happens? Extra tip: it’s all about box breathing and leading with your values front and centre.

d. Recognise that it might take a number of conversations interspersed with reflection by all. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.

Bonus lesson on conflict in teams:

If people get dysregulated, it’s OK to pause for a minute, or even let things lie overnight. At the centre of any conflict, I find it useful to regularly return to what the goal is and recognise that it’s a series of conversations with loads of listening on your part to start with, that can help you all work through conflict in the workplace.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah Biddiscombe on November 1, 2023 at 8:24 am

    What a great idea the 51% rule is. Will certainly use this in the future. I think a low level of conflict is good for the team I work with- just as long as everyone is respectful, and values are centre place. Many thanks – a very useful piece for the toolbox 🙂

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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