Addressing Conflict Within a Team

Regardless of what measures an organization takes, conflicts will inevitably arise among team members. And while conflict can be healthy, it has the potential to cause distraction within an organization. 

Since conflict is unavoidable, the key is knowing how to handle it in a productive manner. Here, conflict management strategies such as proactive prevention of conflict- related issues, nurturing conflict management skills on your team, and good communication are some important steps to take when dealing with a difficult situation at work.

Read on to learn more as we dive deeper into the topic and help you understand more about team conflict and the best ways to handle it.


What Is the Basis for Most Team Conflict?

Out of the many approaches to studying team conflict and its causes, two broad categories emerge: intragroup and organizational conflict levels.


The main sources of conflict on the individual and interpersonal levels are task, relationship, and process conflict.

Task Conflict

Task conflict revolves around a specific task assigned to a team. In short, it is about the content of decisions a team makes concerning a particular task. The conflicts arise from differences in opinions, views and ideas and sometimes may result from disagreements on what the task to be performed is in the first place.

This type of conflict is less destructive when isolated than when other types of conflicts, such as process and relationship conflict, underpin it.

Relationship Conflict

Relationship conflict involves differences in varying preferences, attitudes, personal and interpersonal styles. With this type of conflict, the relationships among team members are at stake. Relationship conflict is often destructive to teams due to its link to negative emotions, personal dislike and hostility.

Some scholars consider relationship conflict as a shadow of task conflict due to the link between the quality of relationships within a group and the group members' ability to carry out tasks together.

Process Conflict

Process conflict is conflict caused by differences in the delegation of tasks and how those tasks will be solved by the team. This conflict emerges from disagreements over task responsibility and division, control over resources, and the best strategy to handle the task.

Some scholars consider process conflict as the worst form of intragroup conflict, partly because it often bleeds over into relationship conflict.


Team conflict can also arise as a consequence of intergroup conflict, or inter-organizational conflict, which is more often a problem at larger organizations, but can be an issue anywhere where there are distinct functions within a company. Organizations and their teams influence one another, so you cannot view interpersonal relationships in isolation from this dynamic between the two levels of organizational structure.

Hierarchical Conflict

Conflict can arise due to hierarchy within an organization, which can lead to power struggles over status and control over decisions or resources. Hierarchical or status conflict, like disagreements between management and labor, creates vertical strain within an organization, and can be deeply disruptive. If not carefully addressed, these conflicts can end up being resolved purely on the basis of power relations, which can result in resentment, anger, and further disruption.

Inter-functional Conflict

Inter-functional conflict is horizontal conflict between departments, functions, or teams, like sales vs production, legal vs marketing, etc. This strain is less likely to immediately result in a full work breakdown or organizational collapse, but if not addressed can produce long-lasting and challenging dysfunctions in an organization.


Team Conflict Examples

Let's say a team member in your organization comes up with a great new business idea, and everyone loves it and sees its potential. But there's one problem: team members cannot seem to agree on the best course of action to carry out this new business idea.

Such kinds of conflicts are essential to the success of any organization. They spur creativity and innovation that focuses on giving the best possible results in the service of an organization and stakeholders. 

Conflict can be an uncomfortable, but necessary part of teamwork, and every team approaches conflict differently. It's the productive kind that helps teams become better equipped for success and more resilient in tough times. Behaviors that promote productive handling of conflict include modeling a conflict-positive attitude, addressing common conflict-related problems, thoughtful framing of issues, resolving disagreements in a satisfying way for all parties, and maintaining relationships with everyone. 

Below are a few specific examples of team conflict that may occur. 

Conflict About Processes

Team members might be in disagreement about which strategies to use for certain tasks. Conflict may also arise when team processes and procedures are not clearly defined or understood by team members, resulting in team confusion and frustration.

Personality Clashes 

Team conflicts can occur due to different personalities. For instance, one member might be highly critical of others' work styles and decisions while another is more laid back in their approach; it's likely these differences will lead to conflict within the team if these two members are unable to understand each other’s point of view. 

Conflicts Between Managers and Employees

Interpersonal conflicts can result from disagreements between employees and managers. Employees may feel like a more authoritarian manager is being unreasonable. It could also be personality mismatches such as a manager with a type-A personality setting unrealistic goals or expectations, which, while well-meaning most times, could set their reports up for failure.


Team Conflict Resolution

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Effective conflict management requires good communication skills. That includes developing an open communication environment by encouraging employees to speak about work issues. Listen to employee concerns and ensure you understand what they say by asking questions and focusing on how they perceive the issues.

Whether an employee wants to use one project management tool over another one, or two employees are disagreeing over the structure of client meetings, it is essential to respond to any conflict promptly..

But how do you handle conflict between your team members? Below are tips and suggestions for resolving team conflicts:

1.  Accept That a Challenging Situation Exists

Clear and honest communication plays a key role in the team conflict resolution process. Familiarize yourself with what is happening and open up about the problem.

2.   Allow Individuals to Express Their Feelings

Sometimes conflicts are sparked by deep-rooted feelings of hurt or anger between the parties. It would therefore be virtually impossible to successfully solve the conflict without first addressing the emotional aspect of the conflict. Allow individuals to express their feelings, and by listening carefully, you can discern the true cause of the conflict.

3.  Define the Issue

What is the stated issue? How negatively can it impact relationships or work? Are different personality styles at the center of the conflict? Meet with each employee separately in advance and ask them about the situation to gain a full and clear understanding of the issue.

4.  Establish the Underlying Need

Team conflict resolution aims to reach a solution that works for each party involved, without deciding who is right or wrong. The best way to generate a win/win option is to look for needs before the solutions.

By discovering needs, we find out why people prefer the solutions they initially proposed. When you understand the advantages of those solutions, you will have established the underlying needs.

5.  Look for Common Agreement Areas, Even Small Ones

By finding areas or aspects of the conflict that the conflicting parties agree on, you can use them as stepping stones to finding a mutual solution. These areas could be on the problem itself, the procedure to follow, worst fears, or even proposed solutions.

6.  Look For Solutions To Satisfy Needs

  • Generate multiple alternatives to solve problems
  • Establish which actions to take
  • Ensure involved parties accept the actions

7.  Establish Follow Up to Monitor Actions

Arrange a follow-up meeting to gauge progress and encourage team members to be open and direct about how they feel, as this will help them resolve the conflict. Share your own thoughts with team members but avoid taking sides.

8.  Establish What to Do in Case the Conflict Does Not End

A conflict may disrupt the larger department and remain unsolved. In such a situation, you need to explore other avenues. An external facilitator can come in to provide insights on solving the issue. In fact, the conflict may become a performance issue and a topic for training sessions, performance appraisals or corrective action.


Can Team Conflict Be Productive?

Although it may sound paradoxical, team conflict can be productive. Although conflict is inevitable, if handled correctly, it offers an opportunity to generate innovative and improved outcomes. 

That does not mean conflict is often welcome or easy. Learning how to deal with conflict in a team productively could mean the difference between a dysfunctional and healthy group.

Productive conflict involves an open exchange process where parties feel confident to air their opinions and feel respectfully heard. Its biggest incentive is in preserving relationships rather than ruining them. On the other hand, unproductive conflict usually involves frequent and repetitive arguments that leave the parties more frustrated.

Productive conflict resolution strives to establish the root cause of the conflict and treat it instead of the symptoms. The parties have no fear when they speak openly and confront each other constructively, thus fewer outbursts, insults, or resentment between employees. As a result, the team can build and maintain healthy relationships that help them shine. Therefore, leaders should not avoid conflict but instead prioritize encouraging healthy, productive conflicts.

Conflict on Your Team Doesn't Have to Be Disruptive

Conflict on your team does not have to be disruptive. Instead, team conflict can be an asset. When you create an environment that encourages productive conflict, people are exposed to fresh perspectives and different opinions that can lead to a successful and healthy workplace. Productive conflict aims at preserving relationships that are crucial to high-performing teams.

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