Conflict in Teams - Prevention and Cure
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
When I ask managers what are their key needs as regards team development, inevitably what is highlighted is the need for conflict management. Many managers struggle to deal with the pressures of the team having to perform amidst the constant scrutiny from senior stakeholders and as a result, the manager then may have to deal with both issues of underperformance and of conflict. As the stress across the team builds, the behaviours can deteriorate, cliques can build up, and any momentum the team had may be halted with the inevitable slide into increasing conflict and decreasing levels of performance. Increasing conflict can also seriously damage the resilience of the team and this can cause issues of well -being as well as performance.
Often this conflict can be prevented if the team manager or leader invests some dedicated time to allow the team to pay attention to its processes, behaviours and agreements. This is best done at the start of any team formation but can also be addressed at any point in the team's life cycle, and especially when the team starts to slide into conflict and underperformance. The challenge for any team manager is to firstly prevent the conflict happening in the first place but when it occurs, to quickly stop the ever increasing 'hamster wheel' of activity and allow the team to sort out quickly the root cause (or causes) of the team conflict.
Prevention of Conflict:
Before the commencement of any new team launch then the basic essentials of team performance have to be addressed. The team purpose has to be established and agreed; the team aims and specific goals should also be 100% clear and the various team member roles and responsibilities should also be 100% clear and understood. Everyone's roles, responsibilities, objectives and measures should be shared across the team to raise awareness and mutual support. A team agreement as to the desired behaviours and attitudes that all team members should demonstrate at all times should be discussed openly and these behaviours and attitudes recorded in a team charter. The team charter should also highlight the agreed expectations between team leadership and the team and also (and crucially) the expectations of the team leadership from the other team members. Reward and recognition process should be agreed and understood, a robust review process agreed and put in place and a stakeholder map and plan should be discussed and constructed.
Areas of team strengths and team development should also be explored, and key team development areas entered into a team development plan. You can do your own team assessment at Online Team Assessment | PARTNERS Team Dev (partnersteamdevelopment.com)
Putting all these essential team basics in place need not take too much time and it is time well worth spending as it allows the team members to get absolute clarity about who they are, what they have to achieve and how best they are going to work together. The team charter allows all this to go on record and gives the team a solid framework for moving forward to deliver their goals and fulfil their purpose. This also builds resilience and minimises ongoing conflict. It is a sad reflection of the 'busy-ness' of team managers and their need to be seen to get things 'moving' that many of the above team performance essentials are not covered, with the resultant damaging effects of confusion, demotivation, and a lack of focus causing the potential for major team conflict a negative impact on team resilience and ultimately, underperformance.
In any team though, regardless of how well a team puts in place the basics through a team development plan and team charter, there is always the potential of conflict simply due to the people that constitute the team. There are a huge number of potential root causes of conflict but you can identify certain 'types' of behaviour that can cause team conflict. Below are some tips as to how you can deal with potential 'team disruptive' behaviour.
Dealing with Team Disruptive Behaviour.
Whilst destructive team conflict (as opposed to high performance constructive team conflict) can simply be caused by differences in personality styles and other ‘team’ factors such as a lack of clarity and understanding of situations, these can usually be remedied by raising awareness with behavioural styles training, strengths profiling and a solidly constructed team charter.
However, there may be some team members who cause conflict due to their specific behaviours and attitudes. Below I will outline some types of individual behaviour which may have to be handled carefully and correctly, for team conflict to be minimised. I have
"Prima Donna" Behaviour - Team members who exhibit this type of behaviour tend be very talented and tend to let people know about it! They think that because of their talent they do not have to abide by the team's agreed rules or charter, and they demand that the other team members attend to their needs, while they themselves ignore the needs of the team. Even when the team do try to include the "prima donna" they are brushed off. The "prima donna" oozes arrogance. How does the team manager (or team if a high-performance team) handle this type of person?
Firstly, recognise that their personality is not their fault and secondly appreciate that what you see is not all there is. Arrogant people often have major insecurities and may be experiencing more pain and stress than the other team members. There may also be stresses out with the workplace so be prepared to perhaps at some point to become the "counselling" team manager or if you are not qualified in that area, to refer onwards. Thirdly, just check that the team itself is not causing the problem. Sometimes the "prima donna's" arrogance is due to being excluded from the team as the team find it hard to deal with the "Prima Donna's" extra talent and to that end start to exclude them deliberately. Also check that your team rules within your team charter, are not so strict that they are preventing creativity and innovation.
The behaviour of the "Prima Donna" must be highlighted to the "Prima Donna" themselves and the team manager should ensure that not only is the feedback given constructively but a "listening ear" is given as to why the behaviour is occurring. Only then can a meaningful discussion take place as to how best to move forward in order that the disruptive behaviours are replaced with productive ones along with the scope for the "Prima Donna" to remain at their creative best. It may be useful to consider giving them a "specialist" role within the team and make sure that you keep reviewing their progress with them regularly and do not forget the recognition of their efforts!
"Dominator" or 'Loud Mouth' Behaviour - Every team has them - a person who always wants to dominate team activities and ensure they get the lion’s share of attention. The usual way of dealing with the dominator is to "slap them down" by either telling them outright to quit their domineering behaviours or by both ignoring and talking over them, or by relegating them to tasks out with the team. I believe this is counter-productive and it is in these situations where the team manager comes to the fore in team meetings. How about the following:
a. Call on the other team members to contribute. When the "dominator" pipes up acknowledge their contribution and encourage the other team members to come up with their own contributions.
b. Make the team agenda work by sticking to it. Many "dominators" will throw in "wobblies" or ‘curve balls’ that take the team away from the agenda. The team manager should ensure that tangents do not happen and skilfully bring the meeting back on course.
c. When the "dominator" throws in an idea or a suggestion then the team manager should probe as to what is behind the suggestion, how it fits with the agenda, and what desired outcomes they desire. The team manager can then ask the team for their comments and thoughts on it. Do not agree with the dominator before the other contributions!
d. If the "dominator" continues to attempt to control the meeting, then at the next break take them aside and give them the constructive feedback that they deserve! They must be told of the negative impact of their interventions.
"You Owe Me" or "Spoon Fed" Behaviour - Those team members who exhibit 'You Owe Me' behaviour think that the company they work for owes them in terms of a job, a decent wage, and good working conditions. In many ways they act like "spoilt brats" and expect everything to be done for them. They take a negative approach and will complain at the slightest change in company policy. Examples include the company car policy, lunch allowances, pensions, entertainment budgets, hotel rooms at conferences and holiday entitlements. This has resulted in many cases due to people becoming too comfortable because of reduced responsibility. In other words, it is due to bad or mediocre performance management by team managers themselves!
The team manager can handle the "you owe mes” through vigilance and intolerance. Vigilance, by closely monitoring performance against agreed performance objectives and intolerance in terms of ensuring that these objectives are not so easily achievable that the person is not stretched. Too often team members get by by doing the minimum when really, they should have to work to hit objectives. Only by having stretching objectives will they ever perform at the highest level. Rewards that are given must be for achievement and not for simply "turning up".
"Saboteur" or "Dark Angel" Behaviour -There will be on occasion times when the team manager will have to deal with "saboteur" behaviour. This is where the team member who tells you one thing and then does another. Or tells the team one thing and then tells you another. This behaviour is designed to split the team and perhaps create a division between the team manager and the rest of the team. Sometimes they can pick on individuals. Perhaps they see these individuals as a threat and as such start to spread rumours about them, or worse, sneak to the boss to tell them when the person has made a mistake. Even worse than that is to tell lies about them or about what they have done or not done!
Areas of team strengths and team development should also be explored, and key team development areas entered into a team development plan. You can do your own team assessment at acts, and that you have found out that the "saboteur" has been at 'work', then confront them and start the appropriate disciplinary process. Sounds harsh? It is and deserves to be. Teams cannot sustain saboteur behaviour and the saboteur must know how destructive their behaviours are. They also must know what the consequences of their behaviours are in relation to the team. This sort of behaviour must be 'nipped in the bud' quickly, maturely and effectively. However, all is not lost - many team members who display saboteur behaviour, once they realise their 'game' has been found out, can actually turn around their negative behaviour and once again become trusted productive team mem Online Team Assessment | PARTNERS Team Dev (partnersteamdevelopment.com)structive conflict arises it is best to try and understand exactly what is happening, what the negative impact on the team (and the business) is and then attempt to fully understand what the root cause or causes are.
Prevention is most definitely preferable to cure and any new team start up should not launch immedaitely into the 'plan' and its activities without paying attention to the essential basics of team performance. This will enable the team to build its focus, its resilience and its performance. A true high performance team will always have degrees of conflict but this will be what I call, constructive conflict where the team members are confident in being open about what is working and not working in the team. A team charter gives the team that framework and its members the permission to highlight any issues. The team may not escape the fact that there may be some personalities that cause conflict but a good team manager (and indeed a good team) will be able to confidently address any conflict that arises.
There are a number of very cost-effective Team Manager developmental and support resources now available to support you in your quest to truly be that ‘Successful Team Manager.’ You can view and access these at:
The PARTNERS Team Development online Team Assessment – Allows the team to feedback on strengths and development areas and gets them discussing their development towards high performance https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/onlineassessment
The PARTNERS ‘Action Plan’ for Team Managers – A DIY Guide to getting your team performing. https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/product-page/partners-team-manager-action-plan
The book, ‘Team Champion - Taking Teamwork Seriously” - https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/teamchampion
The Online PARTNERS Team Development Course – A healthy blend of video lectures and questions to get you thinking. https://www.partnersteamdevelopment.com/online
If you are looking to develop your teams directly then contact me through LinkedIn or via email at email@example.com Alternatively call me on ++ 44 (0) 776 416 8989.