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Leaders yearn to lead effective, high performing teams where everybody gets on, works together in harmony, collaborates on tasks, and performs well together. Communication, or rather the lack of it, is often the cause of unhealthy team dynamics and team ineffectiveness. But when diagnosing a team’s well-being, we have picked up that the root cause of team tension is conflict. It’s conflict that’s not resolved, but rather avoided, or conflict that’s rife and activity demonstrated. From personal experience, most people dislike conflict and try to avoid it. A small percentage of people enjoy a conflict situation because they believe that it adds value if managed correctly, and they aren’t wrong. Conflict in the right doses is very powerful for problem-solving, innovation and it can be energising.

The right dosage is the most important bit!

There are seven facts about conflict that will help leaders to proactively manage it.

  1. Conflicts can be split into three types
    1. Task conflict: disagreement over ideas, viewpoints and opinions on how to execute tasks
    2. Relationship conflict: interpersonal differences
    3. Process-based conflict: differences in approach to allocating work and delegating tasks and responsibilities to others.
  2. Relationship conflict is the real “baddy” and has a significant impact on team performance, morale, and job satisfaction.
  3. Conflict is a natural and healthy process in a team’s development stage, particularly in the brainstorming stage.
  4. Moderate task conflict is welcomed in teams because it energises the team by producing different opinions, solutions and perspectives. Teams that are too similar in character, thinking styles and personalities often stagnate and deliver moderate performance.
  5. The absence of conflict causes complacency among team members, and delivers mediocre results (the phenomenon of the comfort zone being too comfy).
  6. Conflict avoidance means awareness and acknowledgement of the conflict, but deciding to not resolve it for the benefit of minimal disruption will often introduce rules of behaviour to avoid the conflict. The result will be that people become dissatisfied with their work and their team. This energy will linger and can have a toxic effect, even if it’s not intended. Secondly, conflict that is swept under the carpet may be out of sight in the short-term, but in the long-term people will trip over the carpet and will then need to address a build-up of emotions.
  7. Conflict manifests into passive-aggressive behaviour which shows up in performance through tardiness, power-plays, blaming, and withholding information.

That being said, what does a leader do to minimise the impact of conflict?

  • Build mutual trust by doing what you committed to; don’t let the team down.
  • Increase information sharing with the team.
  • Improve effective communication by ensuring that messages are delivered, received and understood as intended.
  • Clearly define roles of responsibility.

And what does a leader do when conflict is at a tipping point? Try these four things, but be patient because it is a slow and repetitive process.

  • Communicate the desire to address the conflict, and the process by which it will be done.
  • Allow emotions to be aired and expressed but within an agreed framework; take out the sling.
  • Problem-solve together and find solutions.
  • Build understanding and empathy for one another.

We want to encourage leaders to understand the value that moderate conflict does to team performance. It is important to be well-skilled in managing conflict, because avoiding it comes back later and then it can become nasty.