Conflict is an inevitable and normal part of interactions – and teams involve interactive relationships at their core. But like other soft skills, dealing with conflict is rarely considered an essential organizational skill outside of customer support.
Consider the costs of unresolved conflict in a team: reduced execution, decreased innovation, increased retention risks, and low team morale – and it just feels bad.
How to manage conflict: 5 tips
With so much at stake, how can leaders help their teams improve their approach to conflict?
1. Get comfortable with conflict yourself
In conflict, like most issues, leaders should model the behaviors that are acceptable. If you are reluctant – or overbearing – when dealing with conflict, your team will react to your style. Pay attention to conflict, and to your reactions.
[ Don't let toxic leadership take you down. Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss: 7 tips. ]
For example, compromise is a common reaction, but be sure not to leave important issues unresolved. Does your team avoid bringing conflict to you? Perhaps you tend to give them answers rather than exploring the underlying causes. Or you might be focusing too hard on collaboration and spending too much time on unimportant issues.
Do you have a default reaction? Remember that you can only lead from where you are.
2. Understand the common causes of conflict
Conflict typically arises from constant change, doing more with less, confusion over responsibility, miscommunication, differing methods, and differing goals. All these causes occur frequently in organizations, but they are exacerbated in today’s fast-paced, remote work teams.
[ Does remote work leave you exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]
Ask your team: What conflicts do they most frequently encounter? What seem to be the underlying causes? If you can zero in on a common cause of conflict, you’ll be in a better position to deal with it. Keep in mind that differing methods might not be something you can address if your process allows for it, but differing goals should be resolved quickly.
3. Introduce language for discussing conflict
Team members also need to understand their own default modes for dealing with conflict, along with when that mode is useful, when it’s not, and what other options are available. An often-used tool for understanding preferences and options is the Thomas-Kilman Mode Instrument, which describes conflict in terms of assertiveness vs. cooperation. It identifies five distinct modes – Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising, Competing, and Collaborating – each of which is useful for different types of conflicts. The key is to use the appropriate mode for the conflict that you are dealing with.
Avoiding, for example, should be used when the needs of both parties are low, not because conflict is too uncomfortable to be dealt with directly. Accommodating is useful when the other party’s needs are high and yours are low.
Whatever model you use, don’t overlook the value of your team having a common language to talk about conflict.
[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also: Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]
4. Help the team acknowledge that dealing with conflict is in their best interest
Until you and your team members understand this, behaviors will not change. When we are under stress, we tend to revert to the behaviors that feel most natural to us.
In many cases, talented team members may have been able to get by – or even excel – without dealing with conflict. However, as organizations change and grow, these issues don’t go away, and eventually, they will need to change their behavior.
You may hear team members say they just want to do their work without the distraction of team dynamics. But those dynamics exist whether or not we ignore them, and part of our work includes interacting effectively with teammates.
[ Do you have a tools problem – or a manners problem? Read also: Remote work: 10 tips to be a better virtual collaborator. ]
5. Maintain accountability
As with any project, a leader must drive mutual accountability for conflict management within the team. After you introduce a conflict management plan, schedule a debrief in 30 or 45 days and ask: “We said we’d handle our conflicts in this way – what actually happened? Where and when did we succeed or fail? What did we learn and how can we do better next time?”
Without an accountability structure, dealing with conflict becomes just one more good idea left behind in the battle between important and urgent.
High-performing teams list conflict management as a core competency for a reason: It is a fundamental key to their achievement capabilities. As a leader, help your team understand the invaluable impact that dealing with conflict can have on performance. Conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing; it’s just a difference. That difference can lead to innovative solutions if handled well.
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]
What to read next
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.