Boxing gloves

Most teams will experience conflict and tension regularly. There are many different causes for this and they can play themselves out in various ways. Sometimes in an open, argumentative way and sometimes in a passive aggressive way where everyone nods while in the room but once outside, people argue behind each other’s backs and don’t achieve what they need to, together. When this happens, productivity is affected as time is wasted on the conflict rather than focusing on getting the job done.

Reasons for conflict

Leaders and team members need to be aware of some of the common reasons for conflict:-

  • Lack of communication – when people are not given enough information they fill in the gaps
  • People not communicating their thoughts and concerns - which could have provided the clarification they needed to avoid the sense of conflict
  • Virtual teams – when people have no access to non-verbal clues in communication, there is more risk of misunderstanding
  • Personal differences – uniqueness in people creates differences in teams. If people don’t understand these personal differences they look at others values and opinions as flawed which causes tensions
  • Conflicting goals- if team members have differing goals their priorities will differ which causes conflict or at least tension. This is particularly prevalent in matrix organisations
  • Competitive behaviours – when roles are unclear people end up doing the same things. This makes people feel like they are competing for the task and conflict is almost guaranteed
Impact of conflict

If the impact of conflict and tensions are not managed, they erode trust. This can make people work on their own rather than cooperate and work together. Team members often waste time thinking about conflict and talking to others about it, which creates more tension.

When people don’t have enough information they make up their own story, rumours are created and suspicion grows, which is detrimental to teamwork. Conflicting goals and roles create confusion and this can lead to inactivity, which affects productivity.

Solutions for conflict

Conflict and tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can be healthy. If carefully managed it can trigger healthy debate and challenge. This helps people to think differently and create a better end result for all. Knowledge and insight expand, innovation can happen and results flourish. The point is not to avoid conflict but to manage it in such a way that it becomes a powerful tool for teamwork.

  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious, it may not be obvious to others. Don’t assume others already know
  2. Get together and ask constructive questions. Frame questions constructively to fill in the communication gap. If you notice tensions, invest the time to talk
  3. Assume positive intent. Everyone is different, just because they don’t think or feel like you do doesn’t mean they are wrong
  4. Step into someone else’s shoes. To truly understand others you need to proactively step into their shoes. If you find it hard to see eye to eye, then spend time thinking from their point of view
  5. Connect up team members’ goals. If you don’t have them, go get them. Team members need to be involved in the goals if you want their commitment to them. Make sure the goals are connected to each other
  6. Let go of the need to be right. Conflict is merely a difference of opinion. No opinion is necessarily right/wrong or good/bad, it is just a different opinion
  7. Voice disagreement in a good way. If you voice disagreement in a good way it’s easier to get the other person to explore options with you so that you can improve results
Conflict is simply a difference of opinion, which in itself is not bad. It is how we handle the conflict that makes the difference. Healthy disagreement can lead to better ideas, greater insight, a smarter and more effective working environment.

Tension occurs when things are unclear and/or uncertain, which makes people suspicious. Tension often leads to conflict and vice versa. The key solution to tension and conflict is communication. So communicate communicate, communicate. Go and create a better working environment for you and your team, starting today!

By Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, authors of "Leading Teams – 10 Challenges: 10 Solutions"