In an ideal world, your team would work harmoniously. They’d celebrate each other’s wins, support each other’s growth, and enjoy spending time together (whether in-person or virtually) off the clock.
Snap your fingers in front of your own face, because here’s the truth: That’s not reality. Nearly every team experiences disagreements, with 85% of employees at all levels reporting that they deal with conflict to some degree.
Sorry to destroy your workplace fantasy, but fortunately it’s not all bad news. While conflict at work is inevitable, it can also be a positive thing. “Conflict fuels change,” writes Christine Carter in an article for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Conflict is entirely necessary for intellectual, emotional, and even moral growth.”
Here’s where you—the team leader—come into play. In order to reap the rewards of conflict, you need to know how to manage it effectively. And unfortunately, 54% of employees think their managers could do a better job of handling work disputes.
Not sure how to smooth the waters in a way that’s productive and positive? Let’s take a look at some of the most common team conflicts, along with advice for addressing each one.
Conflict #1: Two Team Members Have Different Work Styles
You don’t have a homogenous team, and that’s great. But it also means that you’re juggling a lot of different approaches to work. Emphasis on a lot.
There’s the team member who prefers to silently think things through before making a decision. There’s the one who would rather jump right in and figure it out along the way. There’s the person who speaks up in every team meeting and another who almost never chimes in. There are procrastinators, overachievers, and everything in between.
Keeping all of these people happy and ensuring they can work together efficiently feels like a not-so-fun game of whack-a-mole. And, this is the root of many workplace conflicts: people just don’t have aligned expectations for how they get their own work done.
How To Deal
- Create personalized user manuals. Set up a simple template or a Trello board for your team where everybody can share details about their preferred working style. By documenting how they like to receive feedback, their most-focused hours of the day they want to save for deep work, their typical approach to a big project, and more, your team members can understand each other better. It boosts effectiveness and transparency while reducing resentment and tension.
- Do a strengths assessment or personality test. A classic study by Gallup found that 40% of employees become disengaged if their key skills are ignored. In comparison only 1% do if they feel their managers actively play to their strengths. It’s proof that leaders need to know the ins and outs of their team members’ skills and interests, and a personality test is a helpful way to get a handle on that. Not only will it help you as the leader, but it’ll also help team members get to know each other on a deeper level—and collaborate more seamlessly as a result.
Conflict #2: One Team Member Gets Promoted Over Others
Employees are eager to climb the proverbial ladder at work. In fact, 64% of workers would accept a higher job title, even if it didn’t come with a raise.
Having a team full of high-achievers who are hungry to move up isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, it can breed jealousy and a constant sense of competition—and that race isn’t always friendly or healthy.
That’s especially true when one team member earns a promotion over others who were also in the running. On the surface, you might see congratulatory emails and celebratory GIFs. But brewing underneath? There could be feelings of envy and resentment, gossip, and other toxic dynamics that you need to be prepared to address.
How To Deal
- Break the news yourself. Other employees who were contenders for that role shouldn’t discover that they weren’t chosen through a company-wide email. Sit down with them one-on-one to let them know that they aren’t getting the promotion and provide some constructive feedback about why you went another way and what happens next. It’s never an easy conversation, but it’s one that’s worth having.
- Provide other growth opportunities. Part of what makes missing a promotion so disheartening for employees is that it feels like they missed a rare opportunity. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in one survey cited “nowhere to go” as the reason why they didn’t get promoted in the past year. Even if you can’t offer a fancy new title, emphasize other opportunities for advancement—whether it’s spearheading new projects, joining boards and committees, or refining other skills.
- Observe your team’s interactions. Even if you do everything right, those jealous feelings can still emerge. Make sure you keep a close eye on your team’s dynamics as the promoted employee moves into their new role. Does it seem like certain team members are avoiding them or undermining them? Do you pick up on muttered remarks in team meetings? Those are things you’ll need to address directly.
Conflict #3: Your Team’s Process Isn’t Working
Not all conflicts are driven by personality clashes or other interpersonal issues. Sometimes there’s something that isn’t working logistically for your team.
Maybe people feel buried under overwhelming workloads. Perhaps they keep running into the same process bottlenecks over and over again. Maybe you don’t have a centralized place to manage projects and important information keeps getting lost.
When team members are in the thick of those sorts of problems, it’s tempting for them to point fingers at each other—“That deadline was missed because somebody didn’t share what was needed. You didn’t hit your target because so-and-so screwed up.”
But behind that blame game is an actual process issue that—if patched up—could make a world of difference for your team’s efficiency and relationships.
How To Deal
- Regularly solicit feedback. Your team meetings shouldn’t become recurring, glorified status updates. Reserve time in each meeting to ask about sticking points. That will help you uncover roadblocks and frustrations that you can address before they become a bigger problem.
- Use the right tools. 51% of employees say that their employers are “technology laggards” and that causes frustration in their daily jobs. Along with asking for feedback about your actual processes, connect about the tools that employees are using to get their work done. They might have suggestions about platforms that would help them work together more efficiently and effectively.
- Implement the “five whys.”If and when a problem or conflict occurs, resist the urge to jump right into problem-solving mode to smooth things over. Take the time to understand the root of the issue using the “five whys” technique (which is essentially just asking “why?” five times in a row). That helps you address the real problem, as opposed to slapping on a band-aid. Here’s an example: Our team missed the target launch date for our blog redesign.
- Why? Sylvia didn’t get the new graphics done in time.
- Why? She was waiting on the design brief.
- Why? The design brief got stuck and siloed in somebody’s inbox.
- Why? The brief was sent to two people, rather than the whole team.
- Why? We don’t have a centralized place to manage projects.
That seemingly simple exercise revealed to you and your team that the solution doesn’t involve reprimanding Sylvia—it’s about streamlining your workflows.
Conflict #4: Team Members Just Don’t Like Each Other
There’s a seemingly endless list of reasons you could experience conflict on your team—differing communication styles, competing opinions on how to solve a problem, and plenty more.
But sometimes, team conflicts come down to different personalities. It’s common for people to have dissimilar temperaments. A whopping 100% of people (yes, that’s a real statistic) admit that they’ve been annoyed by a coworker, and 73% of those people say that two to five coworkers annoy them on a regular basis.
While the “work is a family” trope is pervasive, the truth is there will be people on your team who simply wouldn’t choose to spend time with each other if they weren’t being paid to do so. Even so, they need to figure out how to put those differences aside and work together effectively—and it’s your job as the leader to set that tone.
How To Deal
- Talk it out. When you’re looped in on personality clashes, it can be helpful to facilitate a respectful and professional conversation between the team members who aren’t meshing. It’s important to emphasize that there isn’t a right and wrong here—you just need to figure out how to find some common ground. Your employees are grown adults who can hopefully hash things out without too much intervention, but make sure you don’t allow things to get heated or the situation to escalate to the point where it’s unproductive.
- Lead by example. Chances are, you’ve experienced some personality friction at work yourself. Maybe there’s another team leader you don’t see eye-to-eye with. Now’s the time to practice what you preach and handle those differences, as opposed to complaining behind the other person’s back. Your employees will learn more from what you do than from what you say.
- Know what you won’t tolerate.Incompatible personalities are one thing. But, that’s different from a team member who is blatantly toxic or discriminatory. As the manager, it’s important that you uphold your team’s values and demonstrate the type of conduct that’s acceptable—even when that involves making some tough decisions. Letting that behavior continue without consequences can make your other team members feel unsupported, or worse, attacked.
Make The Most Of Conflict (Yes, It’s Possible)
Think you can banish conflict from your team? Think again. The occasional spat or disagreement is normal—not to mention… healthy!
It’s not about figuring out how to eliminate it. Instead, as the leader, it’s your job to understand how to manage it in a way that leads to learning and improvement, as opposed to animosity and annoyance.
It’s a learning process, and you’re bound to make some mistakes. But, keep going. That commitment to getting your team through choppy waters ultimately reinforces why they want to be on your boat in the first place.