Into the Storm: Mastering team conflict

Into the Storm: Mastering team conflict

transition-coachingAs a sailor, when I see a storm building on the horizon, I intentionally alter my path to circumvent the system – tacking to port or starboard, or identifying a cove or marina to head into for safety…anything to escape the danger that lies ahead.

In the business setting, our human tendency is to do the same – avoid the storm, the conflict, that we see brewing. We are a conflict-adverse culture and society. Often, our last (or near last) resort is moving directly into the issue, tension, and challenge to attend to what must be addressed.

So, why is this? Why do we avoid addressing and resolving conflict? Why is it so difficult? Afterall, it’s often identified as one of the most important competencies required of top leaders to succeed. Beyond the fact that conflict is flat out uncomfortable, I believe our aversion is due to a few key things:

  • Many of us learn early on in our formative years to avoid making waves, to listen to others, and be polite. Personally, as a female growing up in the southeastern United States, I often would say one thing and mean another – too afraid to share my true thoughts and risk offending someone. My parents, as well as others who shaped and influenced me early on, taught me that questioning and being direct was considered rude, bossy, and aggressive, so I simply didn’t practice it.
  • When starting out in our careers, we’re young, new in a position, trying to gain an understanding of the office culture, and learning the political landscape. We’re encouraged (whether expressed or not) to be tactful and diplomatic – “keep your head down and get the job done” – or else become known as the difficult employee…sometimes risking losing our job altogether.
  • When we advance and move from a role as an individual contributor to a role of leading others, the relationships necessary for working together often spawn conflict. Our tendency can be to revert back to what we know well – our individual strengths, whether technical, financial, sales, etc. – and avoid the sticky, messy group dynamics of gaining alignment and commitment to work toward a common goal. We can also avoid acting as a result of preservation (of relationships, tradition, etc.) and territory, digging our heels in to protect our own viewpoints, values, and beliefs and refuse to move.

Conflict is difficult for a number of reasons – those mentioned above and others you can surmise. But difficult as it may be, addressing and resolving conflict is critically important to individual and organization success. It begins with defining what conflict is in the first place and understanding it as something to be dealt with instead of avoided.

At its core, conflict is disharmony and discord between people, interests, or ideas. It’s also natural to the human experience. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Afterall, people are emotional beings. We have deeply held beliefs, values, and experiences that have shaped who we are. We’re bound to bring this into how we express ourselves, make decisions, and communicate with one another. And when we do, we will differ, disagree, and sometimes clash. The key to making it work and being effective, is to learn to have open, honest debate and dialogue around issues of importance to the team. It can only happen if vulnerability-based trust exists.

Teams without trust often argue destructively because they are laced with politics, pride, and competition, rather than humble pursuit of truth. When trust exists, team members say everything that needs to be said and it leaves less to talk about behind closed doors. Conflict is always at least a little uncomfortable. And it’s inevitable that people will feel under some degree of personal attack. This is still no reason to avoid conflict.

As Patrick Lencioni states in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “If team members are not making one another uncomfortable at times, if they’re never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.”

The problem around conflict that I most often see in relationships and teams is artificial harmony with no conflict at all, coupled with great fear of moving in that direction. It reminds me of a friend who told me that he and his girlfriend of two years had never had an argument. He shared this as a point of pride; however, I see this as a warning sign. The ability to have healthy, productive conflict is a symbol of maturity and sustainability in a relationship. When a relationship or team shows that it can survive an incident of significant conflict, it builds greater trust and confidence in the relationship.

Let’s examine a few key practices to engaging in and managing team conflict:

  1. Begin with trust building exercises. A team (or a relationship of any kind) and its members must know and trust one another before it can engage in courageous conversations and move into and through conflict together. (See key tips in my blog post: Team Trust – Critical Yet Rare)
  2. Identify “rules of engagement” and how you will address conflict together. Establish clear norms, keep these visible and present, and hold everyone accountable for what they’ve agreed upon. It’s important to ensuring a productive exchange of ideas.
  3. Gain clarity on viewpoints and comfort levels with conflict, because they can differ greatly. On one extreme are the people who are comfortable arguing passionately; on the other are those who are not comfortable expressing the mildest of dissention. Know where your team members fall, why they fall there, and what’s important to them as you work together to address conflict.
  4. Be clear on role clarity and alignment. Individual team members need to be crystal clear on their own role, how their role supports the team’s work, and how the collective team’s work supports the organization’s mission.
  5. Create a feedback rich environment in the spirit of understanding one another’s behaviors and the impact of those behaviors on teamwork and effectiveness. Foster a culture that encourages team members to give feedback to one another in a positive, non-judgmental manner, and then members use that feedback to shape and adapt their behaviors to yield the greatest results.
  6. Leaders must be miners of conflict. It’s important for a leader “not only to light the fuse of good conflict, but also to gently fan the flames,” states Lencioni. “Even when team norms for conflict have been set, most people will shy away from conflict.” Seek out opportunities for unearthing buried conflict and require team members to address the issues. An issue lying dormant is merely simmering beneath the surface and can be on the verge of erupting…or can quietly undermine progress.

Given human nature and the pressures of organizational life, there’s likely to always be conflict wherever people are together. But this conflict can be managed so that it’s a productive encounter that leaves individuals engaged in their work, honored and supported for their ideas and beliefs, and the organization on a path to mission delivery success.


Lencioni, P. (2005). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: a field guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Also read these related blog posts:

Perspectives on Conflict with Your Boss

Bridge the Divide of Conflict with Direct Reports

Team Trust – Critical Yet Rare

A Process for Managing Peer Conflict


about-leadershipAbout Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.