Most teams have some forms of conflict in them.  It’s just a fact of life.  Where people are involved, there will be some conflict.  Whether it’s egos, conflicting personalities or competition, something will get in the way of productivity.  The idea of proactively handling conflict in teams is something every leader should look for, but most do not.

This question came up to me a while ago:

Can you come up with some ideas/tips or even a couple of articles on how to prevent conflict within your team or how to deal with/manage/solve if a conflict emerges between two/more team members, or between team leader and members? What steps are needed to be taken to defuse the conflict?

I was impressed with this leader who wants to address conflict.  And the word that impressed me the most was in the first sentence.  That word is “prevent”.  This leader sees that there is a potential of conflict, and she is trying to stop it before it proliferates.

Identifying sources of conflict

First, as a leader, you should identify the potential sources of conflict on your team. Fundamentally, as a leader, this is one of your most important roles. Sources of conflict can come in two broad categories, internal and external.

Internal Sources of Conflict

Internal sources of conflict include your team’s own member personalities, your company/organization policies, your corporate culture, and your own leadership style.  Proactively handling conflict requires you to identify the greatest sources of conflict and address them, even when it is uncomfortable.

I mentioned competition as a potential source of conflict.  I see this in many corporate departments.  In fact, many corporate environments encourage competition.  They see competition as the primary source of motivation for team and individual performance.  In some cases, this may be true.  It depends upon the makeup and personalities on the team.  For example, if you have one person who is driven for individual recognition above team success, he will strive to be “the winner”, at the cost of the overall team.  I have personally seen this.

Competition can kill teamwork

I once was leading a short term project to solve a big problem with our corporate ERP system.  This was a mammoth system with hundreds of team members involved in its implementation and support.  And the problem had reached the desk of our CEO.  As a leader in a Fortune 500 organization, this should never have made it to his desk.  But it did, and now we had to solve the problem.

I was brought in as the person to lead the team.  One reason I was chosen was I would bring a neutral, outside perspective to the problem.  I had a “co-leader” in the group who did not have the skills to lead or get the problem solved.  In fact, she had been part of the team when the problem developed.  She chose to focus her efforts on publicizing our “wins” while I focused on solving the problems.

Long story short, we solved the problems after several weeks of intense research and experimenting with various solutions.  The team rallied together and worked long hours to get it done.  We received kudos and thanks from the whole organization.  But the “co-leader” who had spent most her time promoting herself, got special recognition.  And while the team members knew she had done nothing to help achieve the goal, she was seen as the reason for our success by some.

The result of that project was a success.  But how successful do you think that team would be if asked to rally together again?  Not very likely.  The team had lost trust because one person chose to make it about themselves rather than about the team.  And even though they made it sound like they were celebrating the team’s victory.  It was all a clever disguise in getting her own credit.

Behaviors and Personality Styles

Another source of internal conflict is behavior and personality styles.  One thing we can say about people is that we are all different.  And that is a beautiful thing.  But when you bring people together to achieve a common goal, conflicting behavior and personality styles can cause problems.

We administer the DISC assessment at FocalPoint.  I love DISC because it’s easy to understand and almost always accurate in its description of people.  When I administer DISC to a team, I consolidate all of the results on a single graph.  This is a powerful tool for a team to look at.

I had a client once that had internal team issues.  It was clear from the outset.  And in my initial interviews with the various leaders, they all talked about Billy, and the problems they had with Billy.  Now Billy was an outstanding sales leader, and they recognized the value that he brought to the organization.  But Billy drove them all crazy.  To the point that some would just wish Billy would leave.

Then I administered the DISC.  And what the results showed was that Billy was on one corner of the chart, and everyone else was in the opposite corner.  It’s like a wrestling match with a half-dozen wrestlers in one corner, and one poor guy opposing them.  When I shared the chart, eyes lit up, lightbulbs went off, and people recognized what was going on.

You see, Billy was speaking one language, his language.  And everyone else was speaking their language, a different language.  The problem was that they weren’t communicating because they all have different behavior styles.

The great news about this organization was that once they discovered that Billy wasn’t doing what he was doing to be a bad guy, they began to respect Billy for who he was.  And once Billy realized that he needed to communicate differently because he was the “odd man out”, he began to have more pleasant and productive conversations with the team.  They learned to speak each other’s language.

Your Leadership Style

Your own leadership style, as leader of the team, will have a larger impact on team dynamics than anything else.  Do you encourage competition for competition’s sake?  Do you reward individual success over team victories?  How do you handle team members like Billy that differ from the crowd?

If you have read my blog much at all, you know that I am a proponent of the servant leader concept.  I believe more than anything else, this approach to leadership can be used to solve and prevent internal conflict more than anything else.  When your team knows that you have their back, before anything else, they will walk through fire for you.

Proactively Handling Conflict from External Sources

External sources of conflict are sometimes more difficult to manage.  I will cover these in more detail in a future post.

Coaching for Better Teams

It may sound weird, but I love working with teams in conflict.  Proactively handling conflict can completely transform an organization.  I love to see improvements in teams as they learn to work together, to communicate and most importantly, respect each other.  If you would like to learn more about how a coach can help you do this, give me a shout today.  I help leaders with proactively handling conflict in teams of all shapes and sizes.