“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”—Babe Ruth
Among the many critical project success factors—detailed plans, accurate estimates, and clear communication—a strong, unified team is arguably one of the most important. Without it, conflict prevails that—if left unchecked—can derail your projects. Team conflict can undermine your goals and slow down your project delivery, not to mention strain workplace relationships. Learning how to regularly address team conflict–and understand how it can work in your favor–can be your secret weapon as a manager.
Today, project leaders focus heavily on building the right teams—ones consisting of members who not only have strong complementary skills but also work well with others. But, even among the strongest of teams, conflict is inevitable.
The Inevitability of Team Conflict
Conflict is part of being human. Strong personalities can often clash, as can team members with completely opposite personality types. People simply come from different backgrounds, hold different values and have unique perspectives. Egos and insecurities (or both) – natural within all of us in varying degrees – are likely at play. Combine these personality nuances and other differences together, and you have the perfect recipe for success—and conflict.
The truth is, good teams have conflict. A lot of conflict. Diversity of ideas, communication styles,types of intelligence, and more, all contribute to the level of output and success that your team is able to achieve. Team conflict is almost like a type of friction that, when handled correctly, can provide the learnings and traction your team needs to accelerate toward your goals.
So, When team conflict inevitably occurs, how do you deal with it? Let’s start by challenging that very idea.
Do You Really Need a Plan to Deal with Team Conflict?
Have you ever thought that in a perfect world, every conflict would be the same and easy to deal with? People would react the same to every situation and even feel the same. You’d know all the variables, have one plan, and understand exactly what to do. Each and every time.
In reality, human emotion is a variable that’s hard to control. You cannot predict with certainty how people will feel or react to situations, making it even harder to determine how they’ll work together. Some ideas present conflict innately or team members have divergent approaches to work, and you must resolve the conflict to decide how to move forward.
With team conflict potentially being so varied and unique, is it really worth having a plan to manage it?
Sure, you could create “X” number of steps you follow to deal with it and adapt those to every situation, but in this case, a list might be more distracting than helpful.
Start by Finding the Cause of the Team Conflict
I’m proposing that you approach team conflict with a shift in mindset, starting with the most obvious step, identifying the cause of the team conflict.
Every situation is different, and finding the cause of your team conflict will likely take some digging, but it’s important that you dig far enough. Here are a few strategies to help:
- Meet with each team member involved in the conflict individually and hear their perspective. It’s important to stay curious about the root cause of the team conflict rather than jump to judgements and conclusions.
- Build trust with your team and make them feel comfortable sharing their ideas and feelings about the conflict as long as everyone remains focused on solving it.
- Zoom out and remember the big picture purpose or goals of your team. Some team conflict can arise from having lost sight of guiding principles or sense of purpose. Find ways to remind your team what matters, what they share in common, and the value of working together towards a solution. Keep reading for tips on how to do this.
From there, you can call a meeting for those involved and encourage them to listen to one another’s problems in the hopes they find a compromise. Even then there are no guarantees, and you’ll likely have to act as or find a mediator.
The above is certainly a viable approach that many project leaders use, but it’s reactive, not proactive. I’d like to propose an even better approach to identifying team conflict that works from the beginning, and may help your team spot and avoid conflict before it even occurs.
An Alternative Approach to Handling Team Conflict: Don’t Manage It
When a team is first getting together, it can be very exciting. It can also bring out nerves or worries about what might happen. Who will emerge as leaders in this group? Will we work well together? What if something or someone gets in the way of our collective strengths?
If done right, spending time at the beginning getting to know each other and how you communicate can help avoid and even resolve team conflict.
Two years ago, while building my business, I was part of an accountability group with three other people. We met weekly to not only hold each other accountable to our goals but also to share ideas.
Seeing as we would spend much time together and maybe even jointly work on future projects, my friend suggested we take personality tests to understand our behaviors and analyze team dynamics.
She introduced us to Shadowmatch, an online behavioral mapping system used by companies, coaches, psychometrists, and psychologists to recruit precisely, to understand the unique behavior of an individual, and to develop people, conduct team analyses, team onboarding, and team building. As such, it’s also a great tool for addressing team conflict.
Indeed, it was the team-onboarding, team-analysis, and team-building features that were particularly useful. After completing the tests, Shadowmatch mapped our results on a graph for comparison. The platform pinpointed
- our individual strengths and weaknesses,
- overlaps (similarities) in these strengths and weaknesses,
- certain behaviors all of us closely exhibited, and
- those of us who showed vastly different behaviors.
Each of us could access the results to view the team dynamics. By analyzing the comparisons, we could identify potential conflict points from the start. This identification, in turn, meant that we were better equipped to deal with any conflict because we understood the reasons for it.
There are many options out there for personality assessments – True Colors is another great framework. Regardless of what assessment you select, the most important thing is that this collaborative exercise opens team members up and expedites the learning process in getting to know and understand their counterparts. Empowering team members with this knowledge early on can help mitigate unnecessary team conflict later.
The Many Benefits of Members Understanding Team Dynamics
You certainly don’t have to use a tool like Shadowmatch or assessments like True Colors, but if members in your team better understand their own behaviors and those of others, they too will be empowered to tackle conflict themselves, without your involvement.
You and your team will benefit from the above approach in many ways:
- Behavioral mapping can help you better structure your team from the start. For example, you can identify members who aren’t a good fit and assign them elsewhere.
- You will spend less time managing your team, meaning you have more time for other essential project tasks.
- Members will get to know themselves better and understand why they do what they do.
- Members will learn to deal with team conflict in a constructive way. You’ll probably find that those members who continuously clash will begin to laugh about it as they learn to celebrate and appreciate their differences. They will develop a sense of respect for the conflict itself, recognizing the importance of it as part of the process toward your goals.
Bonus Tip: Make Priorities Crystal Clear
Team dynamics can go ary and conflict can emerge when priorities are unclear and there is too much gray area within a project plan. One of the best things project leaders can do is align every team member to purpose, making it clear how their specific project deliverables help achieve the end goal in synergy with everyone else. Making sure the team is rowing in the same direction toward the same goals is an essential part of mitigating team conflict.
When you set clear priorities on what will deliver most value to the business and why, it also helps take the ego and agendas out of the room. Removing all uncertainty about what is most important and what should be done first can cut conflict right away.
If you find that conflict keeps creeping up despite your best efforts to get ahead of the problem with the above methods, your team may simply be stuck in murky waters due to lack of clarity around what your priorities are. Everybody has concerns that should be addressed when there are proper time and resources. Having alignment on what is best for the business can help your team resolve conflict by clearly knowing what should be set aside for now, and what should be given attention when it counts.
The Bottom Line
Team conflict will always remain inevitable, but managing it doesn’t have to be. Empower your team by giving them the tools and means to handle conflict themselves, and you’ll both benefit. You will spend less time managing and more time leading, and your team will learn that their individual differences are actually the biggest strength of all.