How does your team deal with conflict?


Here are some comments I have heard recently from team members who are frustrated with their teams. Maybe you can relate to their complaints.

  • "We rehash things at every staff meeting."
  • "We seem to be more interested in talking about surface topics during our weekly meeting. As soon as someone starts going into the sticky details or a serious problem, our boss sidesteps it and says we should 'take it off line'. But the problem is we never seem to resolve it."
  • "I don't mind confronting issues in our project meetings but as soon as I do, everyone else just shuts up...but then I hear things in the hall that the silent people never have the guts to say in the meeting."
Does this sound familiar? Many teams struggle with conflict and would rather have artificial harmony than wrestle with a thorny problem. The problem often lies with a leader who avoids conflict, but it can also be caused by members who hold back.  

They worry, "Will I get beat up by my peers or my boss?" "Will things get said that will be hurtful?" "Will the pleasant friendly dynamic be ruined if we fight too much? After all, I have to face them every day!" "Will I look like I'm not a team player?" 

Good teams debate, push back, raise voices, disagree and yes, even fight. They have to have some give and take if they are going to reach a common goal, compete for resources and solve problems.

Teams that are too polite, usually have a leader who makes one of two mistakes. He or she is so worried about the team getting along, they put out the conflict fire as soon as it starts. Or, they don't step in when a team member starts getting out of control, so people don't feel safe, and they shut down. 

Many leaders avoid conflicts by having one-on-one conversations with each of their team members. The problem is that the leader becomes the hub of the wheel and he has to be the one who makes all the decisions. Unfortunately, this leader loses the robust debate and alternative ideas that can only be generated in a team discussion. In addition, it feeds a culture of political lobbying...with individual members trying to sway the opinion of the leader. Often, the decision changes as the revolving door of influencers plead their personal cases. 

So what can be done?

  1. Name it. Early in my work with a group, we will identify the problem, establish how it is hurting the business and get agreement that they want to improve. Until the elephant is identified, it will be the biggest invisible thing in the room.
  2. Make it safe. People need to know that it's ok to have some conflict--but within some limits. Before individuals in a group will put themselves out there, they have to feel like there are some rules, so things won't get out of control. The leader can set the ground rules, with the group’s help, so they know what is expected—and what will not be tolerated. The leader then has to enforce what they agreed to.
  3. The leader gets out of the middle. The leader needs to redirect people who try to have the meeting after the meeting. He or she needs to say, “I appreciate your input. I’ll expect you to bring that up in our staff meeting...we need to hear other’s opinions on this.” One-on-ones should be reserved for updates, coaching, and individual problem solving. Cross-functional issues should be brought to the team.
  4. Commitment to the top priorities. Most leaders have so many priorities—or changing priorities—they spend their time chasing the ones that are burning the brightest at the moment. This is a recipe for finger pointing and conflict. If the team has ranked and agreed to the top priorities for the quarter, and the leader makes it clear they are owned by everyone (regardless of the department) people can pitch in to do what they can—or at least stop the finger pointing.
  5. Reward constructive conflict. If the team hangs in there and works on a problem together, the leader needs to say something reinforcing. “I’m very pleased to see the way we worked on this today. We have a lot of differing opinions but in the end, I think the solution we chose reflects everyone’s opinions.”
Conflict is something most people would rather avoid but a team can learn to embrace it in healthy ways. Once they do, they often remark about how much more productive and healthy their interactions are. It’s no surprise that a better bottom line soon follows. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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