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What Should a Leader Do When the Team’s in Conflict?

No matter what you’ve told your team members about working things out together, and how you’ve tried to address the underlying structural problems that can trigger conflict among co-workers, folks are still showing up in your office telling you that you have to choose between the needs of one party and another.

You can call the shot, but you can’t resolve the conflict by fiat. Sometimes only excessive intervention will stop visible hostilities. But even the power play is not enough: The underlying tension among the parties is likely to continue, and it can turn into passive aggression, political behavior, and backbiting.

You may already know what you want the outcome to be. And you could just announce your view of the situation and let the chips of the relationship fall where they may. But it will be better for your team and the organization if you can help eliminate angry, argumentative behavior.

It’s a Desk, Not a Throne

Okay, you’re not Solomon. So what’s an appropriate role for you to play?

Please don’t ever send people back to their offices to hash it out like two siblings sent to their room to figure things out between them.

Even among adults, if you send adversaries away to seek resolution by themselves, you’ll get the same result you typically get with siblings: The one with more power will generally win. You might also see ongoing sniping from the loser, and gloating from the winner.

And please don’t ever tell subordinates what I’ve heard from some frustrated managers: “If you can’t work it out, I can’t help you.” It’s your responsibility to see the situation through. Plus, if you don’t take an active part you’ll probably get results you didn’t expect and don’t want.

The Manager as Referee

A stalled conflict won’t improve much until the participants learn to communicate directly and cooperatively with each other, so don’t let them take turns telling you their side of the story. Be sure to hear them out together, and don’t permit bad behavior in the discussion.

Some of the necessary feedback and coaching may have to be taken offline to help the individuals learn to change their ineffective behaviors through role playing and working out tentative agreements — but don’t let them use those discussions as a chance to win you over to their point of view.

Instead, facilitate the early discussions for clarity and as a way to lower the temperature. Ask, “So you’re saying this?” “And your most important goal is that?”

Once a conflict gets to the point that it must be refereed by the manager, opponents sometimes downright refuse to budge, as if they can only hear the voice in their own head. They may seem completely oblivious to any of your suggestions for interacting. When that’s the case, try this: “I’m concerned that you’re hearing your own positions so loudly that you’re not actually taking in any of my suggestions. Let’s try to look at this from a different angle. Is there another way we can look at this?”

After Push Comes to Shove

It’s an advantage when you already know the individuals as human beings and are familiar with what kinds of interactions are comfortable for them. Does one person integrate concrete examples better than concepts? Does another need examples of the brighter future or of the unpleasant present in order to move away from the latter and toward the former? These are examples of facilitation that can help them talk with each other, not just with you.

If the adversaries are truly stalemated, at some point (not too early or you might, inadvertently, shut down the dialogue), you’ll need to declare your own position as part of asserting and maintaining your authority. Your position doesn’t have to reflect theirs. It may be time to establish your own view of the situation and make it clear that you expect them to comply — and specifically why and how.

No matter how fierce their opposition, if the participants are operating in good faith, with patience and good communication skills, you will, in most cases, help them achieve a workable reconciliation. (See How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict for more on recovering from conflict.)

In next week’s post, the final in this series, we’ll look at the unfortunate — and too common circumstance — when adversaries just won’t give up the fight.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “What Should a Leader Do When the Team’s in Conflict?

  1. Thanks, this is exactly where we are as a company and there is much wisdom in what you’ve written. I especially like the part about someone being so into their position they can’t even see an alternative.

    I’ve forwarded this to our president as he works to change relationships on our senior team and I can use this with some of my long term team members who are having difficulty with change. As I read the article I was thinking that change can often be at the root of conflict — feeling threatened, or passed over, or insignificant can bring out the worst.

  2. So glad to be on point, AE. You’re right about change as a trigger, and a significant one. Change involves a lot of fear, and fear is what drives most of our bad behavior, whether we consciously identify the fear in the circumstance or not.

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