Team conflict isn’t always bad, in and of itself. That’s because, at its heart, conflict is caused by disagreement. If your team always agrees on the best solution to a problem, they’re probably not thinking creatively. Conservative problem-solving can sink a Six Sigma team. Sometimes the obvious answer isn’t the correct one.

So if team conflict isn’t always bad, why is it an issue? That’s because, left unresolved, conflict tends to cause a lot of trouble. People, in general, aren’t great at handling conflict. Some try instinctively to cover it up and bury it–which can lead to resentment and passive-aggression. Others react to conflict by going on the offensive to try to eliminate the conflict as soon as possible. This can lead to hurt feelings and a sense that not everyone can speak their opinions.

However, how individuals handle it is only half of the issue. Team conflict can easily move a team’s focus from the project to interpersonal battles.

Team Conflict: the Good and the Bad

The conflict you want: Disagreement and debate. Team members handling conflict appropriately. People listen to each other and seek the best solution at the expense of their own egos.

The conflict you don’t want: Non-constructive. Disagreements where ego, not the team’s best interests, are front and center. Jockeying for positions of authority within the team. A focus on individuals. Conflict resolution depends on personality more than facts.

Why Unresolved Team Conflict Is Bad

When conflict isn’t resolved, it festers. This is bad for your team. It can have a few different negative effects:

  • Team members aren’t talking in meetings. If no one will listen, why bother? The team loses their perspective and much of their expertise.
  • The cult of personality takes over. The person who ‘wins’ conflicts leads discussions, not the person best suited to the position.
  • The team judges opinions more on the deliverer than their inherent value. They pick solutions based on who proposed them.
  • Potential solutions are lost because the team’s focus is not on its end goal.
  • Team members don’t thrive and grow.
  • The team lacks a common purpose and direction.

How to Recognize Unresolved Team Conflict

The most common symptoms of unresolved team conflict will appear in team meetings. Ask for opinions on a question that most team members will know something about. Pay attention to the following:

  • The type of answers you get: is there a good range of opinions?
  • Who answers: are you hearing from all team members or only a couple?
  • What happens after someone answers: is anyone shouted down or silenced? Do some opinions receive undeserved negative reactions?

If you’re not receiving a range of opinions from everyone on the team, and if some receive emotional or overly critical responses, your team is probably experiencing some unresolved conflict.

Why Teams Struggle with Conflict Resolution

First, remember that many people have grown up without seeing good conflict resolution modeled–at all. Our first opportunity to learn how to resolve conflict occurs at home. But if our parents react to conflict with aggression, avoidance, or by immediately exerting authority, we don’t learn to work through issues constructively.

Secondly, a few of your team have probably worked in dysfunctional teams or workplaces. Their concept of conflict resolution and professional behavior could have been further warped.

Thirdly, even if most of the team understands and knows how to resolve conflict appropriately, you only need one or two outliers to push the boundaries. A team can easily backslide if personality clashes occur.

The Basics of Conflict Resolution

Before a team can even start resolving its conflict, it needs to understand the basic tenets of resolving conflict in a healthy way. These are:

  • Data drives decisions, not opinions.
  • At every point, ask, “Does this serve the team’s goal?”
  • No idea is a bad idea – yet. Record every idea as though they all have equal merit, then discuss and weigh each one after the ideas session is complete.
  • Listening is an important skill. Understand what a team member is suggesting and why before disagreeing.

Dealing with the “Expert”

  • Remind him or her of the consensus aim,
  • Suggest allowing the data to do the talking,
  • Ask for another team member’s thoughts when you can get a word in
  • Don’t bother asking to cite sources.

Common team conflicts

Floundering. Team members not sharing information     
. Lack of strong leadership   
. Team lacks the necessary skills                                               
. Implement regular team meetings, encourage open communication  
. Identify or appoint a leader, regular check-ins with leadership   
. Identify skill gaps, provide training, encourage knowledge-sharing                                    
Overbearing participants. Some participants consistently reject ideas  
. Participants excessively control tasks      
. Foster an open and non-judgmental environment, promote constructive feedback
. Clarify roles and responsibilities, and encourage trust in team members’ abilities
Risky-shift. Group focus on potential benefits without adequate consideration of risks
. Shared responsibility leads to reduced accountability
. Implement structured risk assessments, ensure a comprehensive risk analysis
. Encourage individual responsibility for decisions, clarify roles and ownership
Rush to accomplishment. Team members rush to make decisions without thorough evaluation
. Skipping or rushing through the planning phase of projects
. Implement a decision-making process, encourage careful consideration
. Emphasize the importance of project planning, allocate sufficient time
Feuding. Team members deliberately keep information from each other
. Subgroups within the team cause division   
. Emphasize the importance of sharing information for overall team success
. Promote an inclusive team culture, mix up team assignments to break cliques
Groupthink. Reluctance to express opposing opinions within the group
. False belief that everyone in the group is in agreement
.Establish a culture that values dissent, designate a devil’s advocate for critical analysis
.Encourage individuals to express their views, use anonymous feedback mechanisms if necessary

Teaching Teams to Resolve Conflict

Here’s the bottom line: you’re probably not a counselor or psychologist. And because of that, you might not be the best person to lead a team through conflict resolution practices. While there are many online courses and team-building exercises that you can try, sometimes your best option is to call in the experts. In this case, someone who specializes in teaching teams how to work through and manage their conflict. If you can find a trainer who is also familiar with Six Sigma, this can be a bonus–strategies will align more strongly with Six Sigma practices.

Videos about Team Conflict

Avoiding Resource Conflicts

Projects may encounter conflicts in demand for the same resources. You can minimize this with resource-leveling. Resource leveling smooths peaks and valleys in demand and spreads it more evenly over time. Conflicts are resolved by scheduling activities in the slack time of another.


Comments (2)

Thanks for the question, Edward.

A lose-lose situation would be where both parties come out worse off for the conflict.

The easiest example that comes to mind is the parenting technique when 2 kids are fighting over the use of a favorite toy and neither can agree and the parent takes it away from both of them.

Does that help?

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