Too much friction at work? How to resolve team conflict

A trio at work standing together with smiles and one person raising their arm in celebration from resolving team conflict

Why can’t we all just get along? Unfortunately, team conflict is inevitable in any workplace. How, when, and whether it gets resolved or escalates is up to you, the team leader. It’s more important than ever to skillfully manage any team members at odds with each other – retaining top talent in a volatile economy14 will help see you through any hard times that lie ahead.

Several factors complicate matters, however. There are generational differences between work styles (we’re looking at you, Gen Z)1; teams are disconnected due to hybrid and remote working arrangements; and, in the aftermath of the pandemic, companies are struggling to define their workplace culture. If you think your company culture is pretty well defined, ask a team member to describe it. If they struggle to explain it or, worse still, respond with a blank stare – it’s likely your workplace culture needs some attention.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution that will bring harmony and connection to your team, and help you take the necessary steps to create and communicate a workplace culture that makes team members want to stick around. Fingerprint For Success was designed to help team leaders do just that using AI-driven data analysis and individualized coaching that delivers results.

Table of contents
What is team conflict in the workplace?
What are the 3 common types of team conflict?
What causes team conflict?
Conflict resolution starts with understanding your team
What happens when team conflict is poorly managed?
How do you spot signs of conflict within a team?
11 tips to process conflict and have constructive conversations

What is team conflict in the workplace?

Team conflict is when individuals within a team have differing perspectives, goals, or personalities that lead to challenges and issues. This conflict can be influenced by various factors, including leadership, work style differences, personality clashes, and the team's motivation to resolve issues. When managed effectively, team conflict can lead to stronger teamwork and innovation. However, unresolved conflict can have detrimental effects, such as stress, reduced productivity, and decreased job satisfaction.

Globally, 85% of employees have to deal with conflict to some degree, and 30% report having to do so frequently2. Aside from the stress this can cause to the team members involved, productivity takes a hit too, with managers spending an average of six hours per week dealing with team conflict3. More than half of employees experiencing conflict at work say it caused them stress, anxiety, and/or depression, and 40% reported feeling less motivated. And according to new research by The Myers-Briggs Company, the more time someone spends dealing with conflict at work, the lower their job satisfaction and the less included they feel4.

The Myers-Briggs report, published in August 2022, is the follow-up to their much-referenced 2008 report. In 2008, 29% of people reported dealing with conflict often, very often, or all the time. In 2022, that figure had risen to 36%.

What are the 3 common types of team conflict?

There are three main types of conflict within a team:

  • Task-based conflict: When employees disagree over how to approach a project or task, or how to solve a problem.
  • Status conflict: When one employee is considered higher on the hierarchy than another, conflicts can arise on both sides. The higher-ranked employee expects things done a certain way (such as being on time to meetings), while the lower-ranked employee can resent being given directions on how to perform a task.
  • Relationship conflict: This type of conflict arises over differences in values, personalities, and opinions.

Having differences of opinion isn’t the end of the world, and neither is it a problem when team members have dramatically different personalities or backgrounds – but they do need to find ways to work in harmony, and to work through conflicts when they arise.

“People don’t need to like each other, but they do need to collaborate and communicate with each other as it’s necessary to do their jobs,” explains Corinne Bendersky, Professor of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles5.

What causes team conflict?

Employees report personality conflicts as causing the majority of workplace disputes, followed closely by stress, a workload that’s too heavy, poor leadership, dishonesty, and a clash of values. Clashing values are more common in some countries than others.

In Brazil, 30% of employees think discordant values are a major source of conflict, but in the US, only 17% think so. The same goes for stress. In Germany, 41% of workers think stress is a significant source of conflict, but the French say dishonesty is the top cause of conflict6.

Change and uncertainty within a company can also cause conflict, particularly during redundancies and restructures.

When budgets and resources are limited, tensions can arise between employees and departments, and the same is true when roles and responsibilities are unclear. Clear communication and well-developed leadership skills are vital when it comes to preventing conflict at work.

Conflict resolution starts with understanding your team

If conflict is arising within your team and you’re not sure why, it pays to do a deep dive into what makes each of them tick.

As we’ve learned, differing work styles can be a major cause of disharmony within a team. Some team members are proactive self-starters, while others are analytical thinkers who prefer to take the time to reflect and weigh up the pros and cons before acting. You can imagine how infuriating it might be when one person’s working style is the complete opposite of a co-worker's.

Communication styles differ too. Some team members might have an affective communication style, which means they tend to be experts at picking up on non-verbal cues during conversations and meetings. Those with a neutral communication style, on the other hand, rely less on nuance and more on precise written or spoken wording to communicate with people in clear, exact terms. Again, conflict can arise on both sides. Neutral communicators can come across as cold and distant; effective communicators can be accused of being big on charisma but short on facts.

Team members approach responsibility differently too (some value autonomy, others like to share responsibility) and their decision-making styles vary as a result.

Learning about the strengths, motivations, and preferences of each team member is a powerful way to get the best out of your team, and to ensure they work together harmoniously.

Have your team members take the free F4S assessment for instant access to an accurate picture of your team’s inner workings.

F4S team dashboard shows workplace motivations of team members on a scale
F4S team dashboard

What happens when team conflict is poorly managed?

Taking a head-in-the-sand approach to conflict within a team is never a good idea, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to address it. But a clumsy approach to conflict can be even worse, and lead to escalating tension to the point that it affects productivity, morale, and even the company’s bottom line.

Here’s an idea of what not to do, if there’s conflict within your team:

  • Ignore what’s really going on: Just because you wish it wasn’t happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening! Avoidance behaviors such avoiding difficult conversations are likely to cause deeper divisions within the team and lead to potential long-term damage.
  • Take sides: Playing favorites instead of remaining neutral and objective can fuel negative conflict and erode trust in you as a leader from the perspective of the entire team.
  • Discourage communication: Failing to facilitate open and honest discussions does nothing to improve the situation and can hinder team performance.
  • Punish the offenders: Sending squabbling team members to the naughty corner doesn’t cut it at work. Threatening disciplinary action only serves to stand in the way of constructive problem-solving and positive outcomes.
  • Micromanage: It’s natural to want to step in and take control of the situation, but when that takes the form of restricting autonomy and micromanaging every little detail in an effort to prevent further conflict, the situation is only going to get worse.
  • Dismiss underlying causes: Conflicting values and work styles are often to blame when it comes to workplace tension and interpersonal conflict, so ignore these issues at your peril.
  • Have no plan in place: Workplace conflict is inevitable but is unlikely to be well managed if you don’t have a conflict management strategy that helps you deal with it constructively when it arises.

Accelerate understanding between teams

Breadth

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Motivated by macro big picture thinking, these teammates value moving quickly to connect dots between abstract ideas to 'get the gist' of things.

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Depth

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These teammates value being concrete and specific, getting into details to understand the steps or tasks required.

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The fallout from poorly managed, unresolved team conflict can lead to the following negative consequences:7

  1. Productivity declines within the team and managers have to spend time addressing the conflict.
  2. Morale and motivation drop throughout the team, even if the conflict is only between two members. Misery has a habit of spreading.
  3. Costs rise due to higher employee turnover rates. When conflict isn’t being effectively managed, things can get so unpleasant for an employee that it’s easiest just to resign.
  4. Higher rates of absenteeism. We’ve all had those days when we just can’t face going into the office. Those days happen a lot more often when there’s workplace tension.
  5. Mental health issues. Unrelenting stress can lead to anxiety and depression.
  6. Financial costs. The bottom line can easily be affected when employees disengage and productivity declines.
  7. Toxic work environment. Co-workers talk, gossip happens, and bad vibes can permeate a company quicker than you might think.
  8. Creativity and innovation are stifled. No one does their best work during times of negativity and unhappiness.

How do you spot signs of conflict within a team?

The better you know your team, the sooner you’ll notice when something is amiss. The well-being of each team member is your responsibility – and pays dividends for your company – so keep an eye out for signs that all is not well.

Disrespectful language is a dead giveaway. If one of your team members is making snide remarks or being downright rude to a fellow team member, get to the bottom of it fast. Workplace incivility can be toxic to your company’s culture if left unchecked. Keep in mind that even if there is no open hostility, passive-aggressive behavior can do just as much harm.

Observing the body language and nonverbal communication of team members when they interact or participate in meetings is a very useful way to gauge whether there’s friction or bad blood8. Eye rolling is an obvious one, but far more subtle cues can also come into play. Grim facial expressions, lack of eye contact, and crossed arms are just some of the non-verbal ways employees communicate their unhappiness.

Notice if team members seem to be avoiding each other, or if there is tension between them (the way they typically communicate may have changed, for example). Frequent disagreements may arise, or collaboration among team members may be less than usual (leading to siloed work, task double-ups, and reduced productivity).

Watch for signs of flagging enthusiasm (slumped posture, losing focus during presentations and meetings, spending too much time chatting with friends, or scrolling through social media during work time). Observe team dynamics and ask team members for their take on how they think the team is faring during one-on-one meetings. Take notice if cliques appear to be forming or workplace gossip is on the rise.

Developing your emotional intelligence will make these signs easy to spot. Coach Marlee at F4S offers expert coaching sessions for leaders wanting to develop their EQ in bite-sized lessons tailored to their goals.

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11 tips to process conflict and have constructive conversations

The most effective leaders don’t start out in management roles knowing all there is to know about resolving conflict – they hone their communication skills over time and develop an action plan to build bridges of understanding between teammates. They know conflict is unlikely to resolve itself and learn not to fear conflict but embrace it! Plus, if they don’t master the art of effective conflict resolution, they soon realize that retention rates suffer9.

Why would leaders embrace conflict, you might ask? The answer is that a resolution process designed to help employees in conflict find common ground often leads to a positive outcome not just for the involved parties, but for the entire team. Conflict can provide a useful way to encourage constructive communication between team members, and even lead to a more positive work culture.

On the flip side, a seemingly small issue can quickly turn into a monumental problem if it isn’t addressed fairly, promptly, and respectfully. Let’s look at some of the approaches to conflict resolution you can take to resolve employee conflict before it turns ugly:

  1. Find a suitable location to discuss the issue. Avoid talking it out in an open-plan office and, where possible, bring remote workers and hybrid workers together in person.10
  2. Address the issue in a non-threatening manner using a calm tone of voice. By doing so, you’re setting the tone for the meeting ahead, and encouraging each party to communicate in a respectful, level-headed way.11
  3. Be prepared for heightened emotions. Conflict can be more stressful for some people than for others, depending on their personality and past (if they’ve faced a similar situation before and the outcome was negative, it can be triggering). If emotions are fraught, take a break and resume the meeting when feelings have subsided.
  4. Ensure each person in the dispute feels heard and understood, and that they can talk without being interrupted. Using active listening skills and playing a mediator role if the other person tries to interject will be important here.
  5. Identify ‘WIIFM’ (what’s in it for me?). Begin by understanding the interests and concerns of each person involved in the conflict, emphasize the mutual gains of resolving the conflict, and outline the negative consequences that may arise from not resolving the conflict. This incentive-based approach to motivation can be a very effective way to inspire change and resolve team conflict.12
  6. Allow enough time for the issue to be discussed, and be prepared to have additional discussions to resolve the issue. Having unrealistic expectations isn’t helpful – if people are finding it difficult to work together and their patterns of behavior are ingrained, it can take time to work through.
  7. Be empathetic. It’s no fun being embroiled in conflict, so lend a kind ear. Perception of workplace empathy is a key indicator of employee well-being and promotes engagement and retention.13
  8. Help each party see the other’s point of view. Summarize the issue from each person’s perspective, asking them to confirm you’ve understood their side of the story.
  9. Take a collaborative approach. Invite each employee to come up with ways they might resolve the issue by compromising or moving forward with a mutually beneficial approach.
  10. Communicate expectations to difficult employees. Sometimes, even the best-run conflict resolution meetings will hit a roadblock if one person refuses to acknowledge their role in the problem. Whatever their reasons, be clear with them about how acceptable behavior is defined in this workplace. If they show no willingness to resolve the issue, it’s time to assess their value to the organization – and the damage it will cause to the team if the situation doesn’t improve.
  11. Offer additional support and resources to prevent future conflicts. Coaching and professional development training can work wonders on employee well-being and satisfaction.

Need to resolve conflict within your team?

Optimize performance and encourage team harmony. Have your team members take the F4S assessment to understand their strengths, motivations, and work styles. Plus, Coach Marlee will help you develop your conflict management skills to turn you into a more effective team leader. F4S uses revolutionary AI-powered technology to improve teamwork and collaboration.

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  1. ‘Understanding Generation Z in the Workplace’. Available at Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/understanding-generation-z-in-the-workplace.html
  2. ‘Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive’. Available at The Myers-Briggs Company. https://www.themyersbriggs.com/-/media/f39a8b7fb4fe4daface552d9f485c825.ashx
  3. ‘Workplace Conflict Statistics 2023: Costs & Outcomes’. Available at Gitnux. https://blog.gitnux.com/workplace-conflict-statistics/
  4. ‘Conflict at Work: A Research Report’. Available at https://www.themyersbriggs.com/en-US/Programs/Conflict-at-Work-Research
  5. Three types of workplace conflict you should know about (2021) Available at https://www.hrmonline.com.au/behaviour/three-types-of-workplace-conflict
  6. ‘Conflict at Work: A Research Report’. Available at The Myers-Briggs Company. https://www.themyersbriggs.com/en-US/Programs/Conflict-at-Work-Research
  7. Abbas, T. (2022) ‘Positive and Negative Consequences of Conflict at Workplace’. Available at Change Management Insight. https://changemanagementinsight.com/positive-and-negative-consequences-of-conflict-at-workplace/
  8. Gillham, R. (2022) ‘How To Read Body Language At Work In 2022’. Available at Blinkist Magazine. https://www.blinkist.com/magazine/posts/how-to-read-body-language-at-work
  9. Myatt, M. (2010) ‘5 Keys of Dealing with Workplace Conflict’. Available at Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/02/22/5-keys-to-dealing-with-workplace-conflict/?sh=10ae0ff71e95
  10. (2023) ‘5 Examples of Conflict in the Workplace’. Available at Indeed. https://au.indeed.com/career-advice/resumes-cover-letters/conflict-resolution-skills
  11. ‘Managing Conflict in the Workplace’. Available at Relationships Australia Victoria. https://www.relationshipsvictoria.org.au/media/rfopijke/managing-conflict-in-the-workplace-tip-sheet-21080-web.pdf
  12. Cherry, K. (2023) ‘The Incentive Theory of Motivation’. Available at Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-incentive-theory-of-motivation-2795382
  13. (2019) ‘Is your workplace empathetic?’. Available at Businessolver. https://blog.businessolver.com/the-2019-state-of-workplace-empathy-study-the-competitive-edge-leaders-are-missing
  14. (2023) 'Chief Economists Outlook'. Available at Weforum: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Chief_Economists_Outlook_2023.pdf

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