Managing and Courting Conflict in Teams and Virtual Teams

Posted by Maria Milanetti and MarchFifteen & filed under Leadership, Organizational Psychology.

Some conflict in teams is inevitable and, in fact, can be healthy. When we have different values as individuals, communication becomes paramount so that we can understand where conflicts can arise. As noted by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more we really get to know people, the better we get along. Familiarity allows us to understand an individual’s motivations and contextualizes their behaviour.

According to the Situational Leadership Theory, developed by Blanchard and Hersey, teams that are most high performing are those that are best able to manage and court conflict productively. This means being able to look at the problem objectively without taking things personally – and understanding that colleagues disliking one of your ideas does not equate to them disliking you.

We all need to take responsibility for our part in team conflict – and in the solution – and be willing to discuss our different perspectives respectfully. This allows us to bring the conflict to conclusion in the most functional way. The highest performing team will do this on a regular basis, and it’s a process to get to that point.

In a virtual environment, the first steps to dealing with conflict are:

  • Noticing there is a conflict between individuals.
  • Making it safe for people to come forward with their concerns.
  • Having a process that allows people to discuss and work through the concerns and conflict.

Again, for any of these processes to work, there needs to be a culture in place where it’s okay to speak up. So, how do you facilitate such a culture?

It is important for leaders to ensure their teams feel comfortable addressing not so comfortable topics, issues or scenarios, and that might look different across various individuals, teams, and organizations. As a leader, here are some things to consider:

  • How do you yourself handle conflict? Do you pointedly address concerns/conflict or do you skirt around issues? You are a role model and source of guidance for your team. Displaying behaviours that facilitate open communication and productive resolutions to conflict will help show your team how it can be done.
  • How often do you check in, one-on-one, with individuals on your team? Do you emphasize that your conversations are judgment-free? This will help to provide a safe space for those who feel more anxiety around conflict. Sharing concerns one-on-one can help them to become more comfortable sharing concerns in group settings.
  • Do you emphasize that there will be no repercussions if a team member challenges something or raises a concern? And is it actually true? Fear has the ability to hold us back. Ensuring that others have is nothing to be scared of by showing it, and not just saying it, will let your team know you truly have a culture of open communication.
  • In team conversations, do you ensure everyone has had a chance to share their thoughts or concerns? Do you reiterate to your team members that their contributions, regardless of merit, are highly valued? Between shyness, feelings of imposter syndrome, fear that conflict can escalate to aggression, among a slew of other feelings and emotions, some may stay quiet to “keep the peace”… and we all know that a tipping point will eventually come. Holding space for each and every person to share their thoughts is a concrete way of facilitating open communication.

Lastly, there are assessment tools that measure an individual’s behaviour in conflict situations. Identifying the various conflict-handling modes that exist on your team can help you to understand how each individual is inclined to address the conflict, and can give you a broader view of how the various parts of your team differ when it comes to handling conflict. This awareness will help you to know who may need to be poked and prodded a bit more to address the conflict, and who may need to be mollified to ensure the conflict does not reach unnecessary proportions.

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