How to Resolve Conflicts in Your Teams: 10 Powerful Tips

Here are 10 tips for dealing with conflict between your teams at work!

As a leader, dealing with conflict in your teams is a vitally important skill to master. And it's not an easy one to get used to, especially the first couple of times that it happens. 

This is because handling these situations is never pleasant, involves awkward and emotional conversations and can involve tough messages. None of which are particularly enjoyable experiences for anyone.

How to Resolve Conflicts in Your Teams: 10 Powerful Tips

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Tackle the problem head on

But as a manager there's one thing you must do, and that's tackle the problem head on, without hesitation. Once you detect conflict or it becomes clear to you that there's an issue it's up to the leader to get right into it without delay. Don't hesitate, don't pretend it doesn't exist or wait for it to "sort itself out" - it's up to the manager to detect the problem, and put an action plan in place to fix it.

Have confidence in your ability to manage your team and start the process of fixing the issue. The more a manager hesitates, the more the problem will fester and in cases like this time generally isn't a great healer. In fact leaving the problem to hopefully go away generally has the opposite effect, and it might blow up into something even worse, leaving you with a much bigger mess to clean up.

So don't waste time. In fact have a plan for conflict resolution in your back pocket for when it does inevitably occur. And then put it into action as soon as you can. 

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Control the emotions

One of the most common mistakes with rookie managers or managers that are ineffective at conflict resolution is that they tend to let emotions cloud the situation and drive their decisions. 

This is REALLY bad. The most effective leaders possess the required emotional intelligence to recognise the emotions of the situation but they won't let any of it cloud their understanding of the issues and the decisions that they make. That's not to say they won't discuss or recognise the emotional aspect of the conflict. Having that empathy and understanding of their employee worries is also absolutely vital. But once that is established and the issues understood, then the great leader focuses on active and focused resolution of the actual problems causing the conflict.

In fact quite a lot of the initial sessions in conflict resolution tend to focus on an empathetic response to each of the parties. At this stage there's no right and wrong, it's all about getting that message to people that "hey - I got you here. I UNDERSTAND. I get it.". And once people know you understand exactly where they're coming from you can all get down to the business of actually fixing the issues.

So keeping a tight control of the understandable emotions of a conflict situation is a very important skill, and one that isn't easy. You'll have to be a good listener, have high emotional intelligence, be able to display empathy and also self-control to not be affected by the emotions or end up taking sides. Once you're in control of the emotions then everything else gets a magnitude easier. 

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What are people trying to gain?

This is important. As an independent arbiter of a conflict situation, it's really useful to try and put yourself in the shoes of each person. 

Both parties will have something they want out of this conflict. It might be a work related thing or something that one person perceives as unfair. And it really can be anything. I've seen conflicts occur over working from home flexibility, perceived favouritism in allocating work, as well as more obscure situations where someone doesn't like the desk they've been given. It can be absolutely anything.

So as a leader, spend time with each person individually to understand what their issue is. And you might be surprised as to how easily some conflicts can be fixed. I've had situations where I've even not needed to get the two parties together, I've simply managed to resolve the issues by speaking to each of them individually. And many times it's a simple misunderstanding or perception issue that's got their backs up. Then it's up to the leader to clarify, explain, and douse the flames of any issues.

But make sure you do this equally. It's no good to fully 100% understand person A's point of view, but then only have a limited grasp of what person B's perspective is. That's not fair and also leads to bias in your decisions and opinions. 

View conflict as an opportunity

Conflicts may seem like unpleasant situations. But in reality they are perfectly formed pockets of POWER FEEDBACK. And you don't get many situations like this where a problem or problems are forced to the surface with passion and emotion. 

Great leaders view conflict situations like concentrated feedback sessions. There's a problem. Could be small, could be huge. But it's a problem that needs fixing and needs fixing right now! 

So get it fixed. Use your leadership skills to address the issue. And understand that it's always better to have conflict situations out in the open so they can be addressed rather than have them hidden out of sight for months, building and building until they explode. The sooner the pressure is released, the better for everyone.

And at the end of the conflict situation what do you have? Well you (usually) have a few less problems than you did at the start. And actually on many occasions the future is a lot brighter having the issues out in the open and hopefully resolved. I've seen work colleagues who had serious grievances end up being highly effective working partners and in some cases very good friends. 

So great leaders and managers often relish the conflict situation, as it's a chance for them to tick off a few more issues that they wouldn't have otherwise known about. And everyone learns from that! 

Develop a plan to address each conflict

In many conflict situations there is likely to be more than one issue that's in play and causing problems. And each person is likely to have their own take on things. So you probably won't be dealing with one problem, more like several. 

And in that situation it's important for the leader to make sure they give as much airtime to listen to all of the grievances. Some may carry more weight than others, but they'll all contribute to the overall situation. 

Once you've given people the opportunity to articulate what's bothering them, and given the other person a chance to respond - then it's over to you. Make sure everything is documented, and prioritised so you've captured all the points that you all need to work on together.

And then it's action time. This is just like a project. Triage the issues, prioritise, action. There are a few different ways you can do things, depending on the situation. You can go for the big ticket serious issues first, and get them fixed. That'll put you all well on the way to a successful resolution. Or you can go for the easier to fix problems first. While that approach still leaves the big elephant in the room, it also gets everyone into the mindset of making progress, and shows that you as a leader are committed and able to get things fixed. Then when it comes time to tackle the big issues, there is a more positive mindset amongst all parties. 

There's no one approach fits all here. Use your discretion and situational awareness to choose.

But make sure you've got a plan and are acting on it. Being able to show you can be the catalyst that helps to fix the problem will be well receives by all involved parties. 

Identify the common ground

In all but the most extreme of circumstances you'll find that work colleagues in a conflict situation will actually have an awful lot of things that they agree on. They may even work really well together in some situations. 

As a manager it's your job to try and identify some of those positive situations. And then try to bring them into the conversations at a relatively early stage. Obviously you're there to help the parties fix their problems, not bang on about the great stuff they do, but it's all about the psychology of the situation here. Being able to address problems is important, and it's much easier if you're all doing it against the backdrop of a more positive outlook.

This really can make the issues feel a lot smaller and insignificant than they actually are. And once that starts happening then there's less point in getting upset about things.

I've seen this tactic work really well. I had a situation where two people had an issue over particular project and it got to the stage they didn't want to work with each other any more. I began the conversations by listing out all of the excellent collaborations they'd been involved in over the last few years. And then it became evident that far from being incompatible, they were actually our strongest partnership. And then it was plain sailing from then on.

This doesn't always work, and I think I got a bit lucky there - but it's certainly very important for a leader or manager to accentuate the positives between the conflicted parties. There is likely to be a lot more good stuff than bad. 

Keep it private

This one is very important. While there may be people you absolutely need to keep informed, your own manager, your HR department or maybe another related team, it's critical that the details of the issue stay very much private

I recall one occasion in my own career when I overheard a manager at a coffee point talking about a conflict situation in his team. He was laughing and joking about the situation and was even taking sides against one person who he was mocking. Pretty terrible behaviour. And what he didn't realise was I wasn't the only person that overheard him - and that conversation got back to one of the people that was involved in the conflict. Needless to say things didn't go very well from there.

So even if the conflict is a newsworthy situation or one that would make great water-cooler gossip - it can't ever get to that stage. Keep it private and focus on making things better for everyone. 

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Don't go back in time

As an arbiter of a conflict situation, there's one thing you absolutely must prevent from happening. And that's the use of whataboutisms - or changing the subject. You know when you'll see someone on TV like a politician or such like. They'll be getting grilled about the latest scandal, and their response is yes but what about that other issue or the time when this or that happened. 

That's a common tactic to deflect criticism by changing the subject. Whatabout this? Whatabout that? 

And it can surface in work conflict situations, especially if the parties do indeed have some history. It's up to you to make sure any discussions stay focused on the here and now. That you're addressing the current points of disagreement and not regressing back in time. If that happens they you'll be raking over old ground or old issues that were sorted a long time ago. And that just adds to the aggro and tension, wasting time and energy and certainly doesn't help to solve the problems at hand.

You'll find this happens when one person may be under pressure or feeling that they might be in more trouble than they'd like. And that can happen in a conflict situation. These situations sometimes do have a good and bad dynamic. There may indeed be someone that has done something they really shouldn't have. 

So as a leader, make sure all of your energy stays on the here and now. 

Define the acceptable

This is one that is most useful in actually preventing conflict situations arising, and that's the need to set a culture where everyone in the team knows what you'll accept and what you won't. What you expect from everyone. The culture of communication and teamwork that you want to set. 

And that'll be different across many teams and with different leaders. Every leader sets the tone they want the team to operate with. I've worked in teams where the manager rules with an iron fist, and even the slightest display of emotion is discouraged. And I've had the opposite, where my manager would actively create tense situations to build resilience, challenge and force people to develop more efficient ways of collaborating. Both styles actually had their plus points. 

Myself, I'm somewhere in between. But I make sure that everyone knows the boundaries, and what's acceptable and what isn't. We have a Team Charter document which articulates a number of aspects of team behaviour, including our attitude to collaboration and challenge, as well as respect, watching out for each other and keeping tabs on our own mental health and that of our colleagues. 

The benefit here is that everyone always knows what I expect from the culture in my team. And if I get any breaches then they're quickly addressed at one to one meetings so that they don't repeat. 

Set the boundaries clearly as part of your team culture and you'll find that the number of conflict situations will be massively reduced. In fact it will probably be a rare occurrence. 

Relish the challenge!

Dealing with conflict between any people is one of the hardest things that anyone can be faced with. And especially in a working environment, where passions and pressure is high. Even more so. 

And that's why not everyone can do it. In fact I've seen many managers, excellent in other areas, that would run a mile from any situation that involves getting into the meat and bones of a conflict situation. 

The fact is - it's hard and not very nice.

But hey - you're reading this post aren't you? So you must really want to be a great leader. You must really want to build your skills and capabilities. And that's half the battle. You've got the mindset to ACTUALLY WANT to be a leader capable of mending broken relationships. You're not scared or put off by the challenge. And that's great. 

The leaders that learn the skills necessary for conflict resolution, and then have the confidence to put them into practice are the ones that find themselves moving on in their careers. They're the ones that get noticed. So it's great that you're not scared of the challenge. Learn the skills, have confidence and execute!

Learn more about people management and my other online courses here.

Paul Banoub
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Paul Banoub
Technologist, Leadership & Productivity Expert, EntrepreneurNOW Network
Subjects of Expertise: People Management, Productivity, Leadership
Featured Uplyrn Expert
Paul Banoub
Leadership & Productivity Expert
EntrepreneurNOW Network

Subjects of Expertise

People Management

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