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Resolving team conflict: tips for how to deal with it effectively

More and more, employees are asked to work cross-functionally in a matrixed fashion to accomplish large, complex tasks and deliver innovative products and services to customers.

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Causes of team conflict

The importance of resolving team conflict

Tips for resolving and preventing team conflict


That model can be incredibly efficient and nimble. It also holds the promise of fostering creativity and allowing diverse opinions to flourish. 

At the same time, it can cause conflict in the team due to varying alignment of goals, workflows, communication styles, or leadership expectations. This conflict can lead to misunderstandings, lower productivity, project failure, and decreased employee engagement if not managed proactively.

When managed well, these tensions can serve as a catalyst for creativity, leading to a better employee experience, a higher likelihood of project success, and positive outcomes for the team, corporation, and customers.

Causes of team conflict

Team conflict can arise in a number of situations, which we will highlight below. 

Leadership expectations and goals are misaligned 

Leaders have different styles and may have their own expectations for the project’s goals. 

Ideally, there is agreement on the project scope and outcome, but that’s not always the case, especially with large, complex, cross-functional projects. Leaders have a huge impact on their teams in terms of expectations — not just on what to achieve, but how to achieve it. This can cause tension within the team as each individual strives to meet their leaders’ needs.

Workflows between organizations are not compatible

Large, complex projects tend to show when workflows or interfaces between organizations are not streamlined. 

This causes individuals on the project to deal with internal misalignments, slowing down progress on the actual project deliverables. Such an occurrence can cause stress and anxiety, leading to conflict among members.

Individual work styles and communication approaches vary

When individuals come together into a team, there are inevitably differences in how they work, how they communicate, and how they interact. There is well-documented research to support the notion that diverse teams deliver better outcomes, yet personality clashes can still arise. 

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The importance of resolving team conflict

Team conflict impacts both the emotional and mental health and well-being of individuals. It can have severe cost and productivity implications.

According to the CPP Global Human Capital Report, the average employee spends 2.1 hours every week dealing with conflict. That equates to a full day each month, or two and a half weeks a year in lost productivity. For the US alone, that translates to 385 million working days spent every year as a result of conflicts in the workplace. 

As conflicts take place, especially if they are not addressed promptly, they can take an emotional toll on employees leading to absenteeism, increased stress, anxiety, and ultimately lower employee engagement and turnover, affecting productivity over a long period of time.

Tips for resolving and preventing team conflict

So, how do you turn potentially detrimental team conflict into a baseline for team creativity and growth?

Here’s some really good news: each of us has in our hands the ability to impact this outcome. With the right mindset, skills, and support, you have the opportunity to change the dynamic of destructive team conflict. With practice, there is also the ability to avoid it in the future altogether.

Here are five ways to manage conflict in a productive way and affect positive change:

  1. Learn to spot the early signs of conflict and address it as it occurs. Many individuals and leaders tend to be averse to conflict, but the timely resolution of conflict keeps issues from festering and impacting productivity in the long-term. 
  2. Don’t take sides. Assume the positive intent of others and bring a mindset of curiosity and discussion. Open options for resolution by the team members, encouraging them to discover common ground.
  3. Focus on the relationship. When you remember that the relationship with your colleagues is the key to ongoing collaboration and productivity, it will be easier to approach conflicts simply as discussions to undertake toward common goals and outcomes.
  4. Invest in skill-building. The skills to effectively navigate and manage conflict can be learned by anyone through training programs and reinforced with leadership coaching.
  5. Avoid it in the first place. A culture of expectation can be a powerful tool to support healthy ways of dealing with team conflict. Such a culture puts a priority on clearly defined roles and responsibilities, clearly understood decision frameworks, leadership modeling, and skill-building.

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