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Team Conflict Management

Written by Angela Goemans-Leith

“While it may feel uncomfortable in the moment, conflict is necessary for achieving our goals in team settings.”

What is conflict?

Conflict is usually understood as a negative encounter between people who disagree. When thinking of conflict, some assortment of the following usually comes to mind:

  • Strong disagreement paired with negative, unbridled emotions.
  • Breakdown in communication.
  • Hostility towards other people’s perspectives.
  • Feelings of alienation, frustration and resentment.

However, while it may feel uncomfortable in the moment, conflict is necessary for achieving our goals in team settings. As such, it is important to distinguish between destructive and constructive conflict, where constructive is comprised of the below:

  • Differing ideas and perspectives where emotions are under control.
  • Communication with the effective exchange of ideas.
  • Openness to and appreciation of others’ perspectives.
  • Feeling heard, valued, respected and clear on the issues at hand.

What is conflict management?

Conflict management allows us to encourage constructive conflict while avoiding destructive conflict. It creates a supportive workforce and effective teamwork. It also reduces groupthink (a consensus agreement where everyone jumps on the bandwagon), and in-fighting which damages trust and is costly to productivity.

Essential foundations

A crucial skill for conflict management is emotional intelligence (EQ). This is the ability to be aware of and control your own emotions and understand and behave empathetically to others’ emotions. Without EQ, you cannot correctly assess a conflict situation and respond appropriately. As such, work on your own emotional intelligence and encourage team members to do the same.

Another critical component is psychological safety. This refers to people feeling emotionally safe in a space, confident that they will not be verbally or emotionally attacked. Psychological safety is crucial to constructive conflict, as it helps team members to assume their colleagues’ best intent and empowers them to state their views without fear of retribution.

Thirdly, you need to have cultural awareness as conflict manifests differently in different contexts. What seems like aggression to you may be a passionate, constructive hashing-it-out to others. Similarly, you need to know your team members so that you can notice when they are “off”. If you are unfamiliar with your team members’ usual mannerisms, attitudes and body language, it can be challenging to recognise their negative emotions.

Promoting constructive conflict

There are several ways you can proactively promote constructive conflict. One is to have team storming or brainstorming sessions where members are encouraged to share their views honestly and respectfully. This will provide a safe space for resolving issues as they arise.

It is also valuable to have regular reminders as to the team’s goals and values. This will remind members of their shared objectives and values and bridge the gap between personal and/or cultural differences.

Finally, if a team member experiences the space negatively, encourage gentle and considerate dialogue between that person and the team to understand each other’s needs and adjust their approach.

Flags for destructive conflict

The most apparent signs of destructive conflict are aggressive behaviour, which can be active or passive. While active aggression is quite blatant, passive aggression can be more subtle and harder to detect. However, both are detrimental to team dynamics.

Some non-aggressive behaviours can signal destructive conflict as well. For example, team members opting out of active participation (indicating a lack of psychological safety), ongoing conversations or meetings where no progress is made due to constant arguments, team members being hesitant to engage outside official meetings and/or complaints or negative comments by team members about each other.

“Destructive conflict requires careful, intentional resolution.”

Resolving destructive conflict

Constructive conflict organically resolves itself into a positive outcome and does not damage the psychological safety of a space. Destructive conflict, however, requires careful, intentional resolution and should be based on the following principles:

  1. Treat everyone fairly without taking sides.
  2. When enabling team members to hash things out, give each person a chance to speak and discourage interruption from others.
  3. Do not tolerate any forms of bullying.
  4. Avoid assumptions – clarify where things are unclear.
  5. Be patient.
  6. Encourage listening and sharing.
  7. Manage the emotions in the space carefully. If you see that team members are becoming very emotional, take some time to cool down before coming back to the issue.

If an open team conversation is inappropriate for resolving conflict between a couple of its members, follow the steps below:

  1. Speak to each team member.
  2. Have team members speak to each other and moderate the conversation.
  3. Ask for the perspectives of other team members.
  4. Create an action plan for how the team members will proceed and avoid destructive conflict.
  5. Monitor and evaluate progress with regular check-ins.

Restoring damaged team relationships

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – the restoration of damaged team relationships requires buy-in from the team members involved. For reconciliation to take place, all parties involved need to want it to happen. Even though you cannot fix relationships on other people’s behalf, you can facilitate their efforts and help them find the necessary opportunities for conversation.

This is most effectively done through a mediation or grievance procedure.

If you require assistance with this process, please do not hesitate to be in touch with us!


This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

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