Management Tips··5 min read

Three Common Team Conflict Examples (And How to Resolve Them)

Three Common Team Conflict Examples (And How to Resolve Them)

Team conflict is inevitable, and it isn’t all bad. Conflict can bring about healthy competition, driving people to do their best work. It may bring about greater understanding, tightened office bonds, and synergetic teams. In some ways, conflict can be viewed as a necessary component of developing a great product or service. Any time iron sharpens iron, sparks can fly; but if it makes the company better, isn’t it worth it?

Unfortunately, conflict can disrupt workflow, create unnecessary delays, and diminish the quality of the product or service. Additionally, it can damage trust, create deeply-set fissures within groups, and cause irreparable damage to the reputation of teams and leadership.

Most team conflict falls into three categories: Structural, Procedural, or Interpersonal. All can be addressed, and utilized for the good of the business, by remembering that people are driven by a hierarchy of human needs, even in the workplace.

1. Structural Conflict.

Sometimes conflict arises due to the actual structuring of teams, the organizational hierarchy, and confusion over who makes decisions or how they are made. Particularly when work requires cross-team cooperation, or when decision-making is layered, opportunities for conflict abound.

People are driven by a need to belong. In the workplace, particularly when there are several teams, an identity develops within each team that creates that sense of belonging. That’s great and should be the case, but when a team needs to work together with other teams, it can get tricky. The further apart one team feels from another with which they are required to work and make decisions, the harder it can be for them to work together well.

Two key tools will help resolve and prevent this kind of structural conflict: communication and culture. To resolve structural conflict requires open and honest communication. Be clear about the responsibilities of each team and which team is taking the lead. Be honest about the desired results and how each team brings strengths to achieve that result. And be ready to listen. Great communicators listen well, and that begins with asking good, pointed questions. Lean into the uncomfortable conversations without getting upset or defensive so that people know you’re sincere about achieving excellence and not hung up on positional power.

This kind of communication builds the culture that helps prevent conflict from arising in the first place. An environment that welcomes feedback and pushback at any level will generate employees that feel free to bring up issues in an honest way without turning to office gossip. People need to feel secure in their place at work before they can feel like they belong, so building this culture goes a long way to preventing conflict in the long run.

2. Procedural conflict.

Layered approaches to decision-making can often ensure that only the best ideas make it to the top. But a layered approach can also create unnecessary conflict and frustration for people only trying to do a job but who can’t because of how many people have to sign off on decisions.

When this type of conflict arises, it’s important to listen first, ask questions, and then propose solutions to the issue. Maybe there are unnecessary barriers to progress in the process. Or perhaps it hasn’t been communicated why the procedure is done. Either way, open communication will help alleviate the issue. However, there are steps organizations can take to prevent it.

You went through the trouble of screening, vetting, hiring, and training each employee in your organization. Once you’ve created a culture in which people can feel safe and in which they feel a sense of belonging, then it’s important they feel respected and empowered. The further away a decision gets from the originating point, the less an employee will feel as though what they do matters because how they have to do it wastes time, effort, and expertise.

Not every decision is executive-worthy. Lay out clear expectations that make it easy to empower your employees to make critical decisions, and leave only the most critical decisions to float their way through layered decision-makers. This will not only communicate to your employees that you trust them, but it also creates efficiency and heads off conflict at the pass.

3. Interpersonal conflict.

All organizations at one time or another will experience interpersonal conflict at one time or another. One impulse may be to ignore it, another to tamp it down harshly. But good organizations will look for resolutions that lead to improved workspace rather than stifled tensions.

Impartial mediation serves as the most reliable way to resolve interpersonal conflict on teams, but you’ll run your mediator ragged if that’s the only tool in your toolbox. As soon as interpersonal conflict is detected, a keen and observant leader will ask gentle, not leading, questions to decide whether and how to engage. If conflict indeed seems inevitable, addressing it before it escalates would be prudent.

One way to reduce interpersonal conflict, though, is to train and equip your people with better tools to work with each other. Personal development should be a part of training for all personnel, but especially leadership. That training should include training on different personality traits, communication styles, and how to best motivate and communicate with each type. Some employees would jump at the opportunity for that kind of training, and they should, because understanding what motivates each person and how they best receive communication will help teammates create safe, respectful spaces for each other.

Leadership first.

It cannot be emphasized enough that appropriate conflict resolution and prevention must be modeled at all levels of leadership. An expectation for employees sounds hollow if every manager, department head, or senior leader ignores those same expectations.

Resolving team conflict isn’t necessarily rocket science, but rooting it out before it begins takes work and requires putting people, including employees, first. Those willing to invest the time to care about people will create thriving, successful organizations and engaged, loyal teams that will elevate business.

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