Resolving the agony of conflict amongst your team members

You hate it, your colleagues hate it, your boss hates it, your clients hate it. The question is: what can you do about it?

I’ve had a number of clients describing the impact that poor relationships and behaviour amongst their team members is having on them: stress, distraction from the real priorities, deferral of important projects etc etc. If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to.

When colleagues fall out the cost is obvious, albeit people rarely name it.

  • behaviour changes: people start to make derogatory remarks towards each other, blame increases, people use less inclusive language and you hear more ‘them and us’ references
  • the best people leave: either the people concerned or their colleagues decide that they can no longer stand the tension…so they leave
  • productivity falls: when trust fails and co-operation falters, there are likely to be more queries and complaints
  • motivation decreases: fewer people volunteer to take on new tasks and people are reluctant to speak up at team meetings
  • absence increases: conflict often leads to depression or stress for the main parties involved but also for their line manager and their colleagues. This stuff spreads…
  • responses to staff attitude surveys or questionnaires indicate underlying dissatisfaction.

Does this sound all too familiar?

If so, here are some clear pointers for how to resolve or lessen the agony of it. Yes, the agony of it. Whether you see yourself as a sensitive empathic leader or a directive dynamic manager, conflict between colleagues is agonising. It’ll take courage and tenacity but it may be easier – and more constructive – than you’re dreading.

Ask yourself: How am I contributing to this problem?

Be honest. Sometimes leaders tell themselves that having a little conflict amongst their team members is ‘just normal’ and they may even perceive there to be a benefit: it can divert attention from their own perceived short-comings and reassure them that, ‘at least I’m not as bad as him!’.

Do not collude with these thoughts.  Your team is watching: Your team wants you to resolve this.  Your boss is watching: she’s keen to see you demonstrate the courage and emotional intelligence you’ll need to succeed her. Strange as it may seem, even the warring team members want this resolved too. They’re paying a price we can only guess at: stress, anxiety, exhaustion…

Then answer the question: ‘how am I contributing to this problem?’. If your reaction is an angry and defensive one then there’s probably an even greater reason for answering it.

If you are contributing to it, change your behaviour before anything else. Be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Call it

There can be a tendency to pretend it’s not happening or dismiss it as trivial. It’s not. Even if you appear to be the only one who’s experiencing difficulty with it (you won’t be), call it. Try this. Ask them both to meet with you and say:

‘I’m noticing that you two appear to avoid eye contact and demonstrate a tendency to blame each other, even in front of others. I’m sensing some heightened tension between you. I’m curious to know if there’s a problem that needs to be resolved?’

Motivate Them to Resolve It

If they claim there’s ‘no problem’ then it’s your job to help them understand that there’s still work to do. Describe the impact that their conflict is having on the team, the customers, their direct reports etc. etc.. Don’t hold back if it’s hurting you too. You might just provide enough of a reason for addressing – rather than ignoring – it.

Stick with it!

Sometimes both parties insist that you should ‘just let us sort it!’ which can be the best approach. Your role is to explain the consequences / impact of the conflict and insist that they come back to you after everything has been resolved. Ensure they understand that you’re looking for proper resolution.

  • ‘The consequences of conflict are serious: on you, on me, on this team, your direct reports and on our customers. Conflicts can arise easily and they often take courage, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to resolve them. If you need some help, let me know. Otherwise please come back to me – together – to tell me how you’ve resolved it. Please bear in mind that I need a proper fix, not a plaster over a crack. Come back to me within the next 48 hours to tell me how you’re going to do it, please’.

Stay with it until you’re convinced that the various parties have genuinely and sustainably resolved their differences. No, they may never be best friends but by sticking with it you are asserting your need to have consistently effective relationships amongst your team. You, your team, your customers and your line manager will all benefit.

Embrace the Positive

When people imagine resolving conflict they often use quite aggressive metaphors and language – which reflects the very behaviours that they’re seeking to address! It can be really constructive to adopt an entirely different approach and accentuate the positive instead.

When I was working with one set of two Directors who were at (polite but deadly) loggerheads I chose to adopt a constructive and appreciative approach.

  1. ‘If your relationship was the best it could be, what words would you use to describe it and what impact would it have?’ and “What would it take to get there?’
  2. ‘When I see Jenni and Jon working together I see appreciation, collaboration and humour. Jenni’s team reflect those qualities when working with Jon’s team and vice versa. This has a positive impact on clients and suppliers, as well as bringing a positive vibe to the rest of the leadership team and to me. I know they’ll work together to resolve problems and maximise opportunities. What would it take for you two to have those outcomes?’


When working with two other directors I began the conversation with a more subtle approach:
  1. ‘What do you genuinely appreciate and respect in each other?’
  2. ‘When is Darren ‘at his best’?
  3. ‘What are his genuine strengths?’
  4. ‘What positive impact does Linda have when she’s at her best?’

Once both parties had exchanged these stories – even though they found it a huge challenge! –  the tone of the conversation had substantially shifted: it was easier to hear the other’s complaints in an environment of appreciation. The outcomes were better and sustainably so. Try it!

Seek Some Help

We all need some help sometimes. Whatever you choose, be sure to act now. Don’t put it off any longer and don’t beat yourself up about seeking help. It can be significantly easier for external people to help as they have objectivity, experience and specific skills on their side.

Being the leader of a team with team members in conflict is – at best – distracting and – at worst – agonising.  Do yourself the favour of addressing it sooner rather than later.