Six simple shifts to tackle the bad kind of team conflict

In our last post, we talked about building good conflict on your team. That is, fostering conflict around ideas so that you, your team, your organization are making the best decisions possible and everyone leaves the room committed.

They’re committed to the decision, even if it wasn’t their preferred direction, because they know they’ve been heard, their ideas and concerns have been considered, and they trust that the person making the decision has the best interests of the team and the organization at heart. 

So, what about that other kind of conflict — the nasty, interpersonal conflict between people? This is the kind of team conflict that gives “conflict” a bad rap.

The reason so many teams avoid good conflict around ideas is because of their experiences with the bad kind of conflict. It’s insidious, it’s damaging, yet often we ignore it hoping it will go away.

What do you do when you’re in conflict like this with someone at work?

Or, when two of your staff or teammates have this kind of interpersonal conflict? What do you do to help?

We’ve got a few suggestions:

Shift Forward

When we’re in conflict with someone on a personal level, it’s because of the past — something that happened, something we resent, something we’re carrying with us. Perhaps it’s happened more than once; perhaps we feel very justified.

That may be but so long as we live in the past with this person, we are doomed to the same cycle. Shift instead to thinking about what you could change going forward and talking about the future desire, not the past frustration.

Drop the But

We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it — we’re having a conversation peppered with “yah, but…”. We’re not acknowledging the other person with the “yah” part of that, we’re disagreeing with them with the “but” part. Try “and” instead.

Switch from “I understand your point, BUT…” to: “I understand your point, AND…”

Listen to Understand

You’ve heard it from me before, but overcoming personal conflict often means listening to understand. While this suggestion is helpful for all kinds of conflict around ideas (including the good kind), it’s especially useful to try to understand what’s motivating personal conflict.

One of the great challenges for all relationships, and work relationships are no different, is to understand what’s motivating the other person — what frustrates them, what excites them, what bothers them.

The challenge, of course, is that what affects others in those ways may well affect you in different ways. Listening to understand helps you figure it out and see the world a little more clearly from their perspective.

Acknowledge their Perspective

Having heard and hopefully understood their perspective — let them know. Take the time to acknowledge what you’ve heard. Remember, acknowledging doesn’t have to mean agreeing, but it shows you’re listening, it shows you’re trying to understand. Try something like, “It sounds like you are feeling____,” or “I can see how this situation would be _____” (ie. “upsetting,” “frustrating,” etc.).

Apologize Appropriately

Apologizing helps to create a safer environment, it shows you’re willing to be vulnerable and it acknowledges something you might redo, if you could. Ideally, you are apologizing for your words or your actions, not the other person’s feelings.  And, you’re expressing your own emotions without blame. Try hard to not include a “but” in your apology.

Be Aware

“Be aware” could be a mantra for leadership. Be aware of how you are feeling. Be aware of how the other person is responding. That awareness is the beginning of emotional intelligence and it’s built firmly on being mindful. I could dive into a whole blog on mindfulness, and probably will one day soon, but for now ask yourself things like, “Why isn’t this working,” “How am I feeling right now, and why,” and “How might I be contributing to this?”

Coach’s Questions

Who are you in conflict with and how is it affecting your work, or the work of your team? How might you improve the relationship? What holds you back from making the first move?

Download your cheat sheet: Six ways to tackle team conflict.

Building conflict in the workplace – yep, building it

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know we believe wholeheartedly in helping leadership teams to become wildly successful. And to do that, we believe wholeheartedly in the leadership model designed by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

In our last post we outlined the Five Dysfunctions in a positive light as The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, and we dove into the first behavior – building trust among team members.

You’ll recall we emphasized that the trust we’re trying to achieve is vulnerability-based trust – not predictive trust. We do that because the next step for truly cohesive teams is to foster conflict in the workplace around ideas and if we don’t have solid levels of trust, our suggestions on conflict are going to be difficult.

Even with trust, you might already be cringing at the thought of conflict in the workplace.

The confusion is in how we define conflict. We’re talking about ideological conflict – debate around ideas, not people. You see, this productive conflict isn’t about “winning an argument” but rather, as Lencioni puts it, it’s the “humble pursuit of truth.”

Productive conflict is the effort to ensure the team is considering all necessary points of view before making decisions.

When conflict isn’t built on trust, it gets personal. Conflict without trust is manipulation and petty politics. But, when a team has trust, conflict is about not holding back differing points of view, not holding back concerns, not having to calculate the cost of disagreeing.


“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal. It’s as simple as this. When people don’t unload their opinions and feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t really get on board.”

Patrick Lencioni


How do you know if you’re lacking conflict in the workplace?

Well, first of all, your meetings are boring. People sit in silence and silence is taken as acceptance or agreement. Everyone is polite and nods in agreement.

More so, disagreements occur after the meeting instead of at the meeting. Or worse, people triangulate. What’s triangulate? It’s when Person A has a view in a meeting and no one challenges her but then Person B says to Person C, after the meeting, “Can you believe how bad that idea was from Person A? I never know what she’s thinking. There’s no way I’ll do it that way.”

You get the idea – triangulation is when people on a team have personal conflict as well as ideological conflict behind each other’s backs. Instead of raising the conflict with the person, they commiserate about it with someone else. It’s the number one cause of death for relationships and for organizations and it’s a sure sign your team is avoiding conflict at the table.

Another sure sign that you’re lacking conflict is that things don’t get done. Or decisions change and no one ever knows for sure where things stand.

Do you find sometimes you thought a decision was made but later you find out others have concerns? Or they took a different approach because it seemed better to them? Or, you thought someone was going to do something as part of the overall project and they didn’t realize it?

This often all comes back to not debating the issue thoroughly enough, before making the decision (which leads to the next challenge of folks not committing to something they don’t really support.

So how do you build a culture of conflict around ideas?

Share your view that conflict is welcome and useful.

Have a conversation about it. Be aware of your own feelings about conflict – how do you model it? Are you encouraging it? Are you diving into conflict around the ideas and not the people?

Have everyone on the team take a behavior profile like Everything DiSC.

There is a wealth of profiles out there (we love Everything DiSC) but most will help you understand how you, and others, react to conflict. Understanding each other’s reaction can help to work with each other.

Define what healthy conflict looks like.
When we work with client organizations in, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team program, we help the team figure out for themselves what healthy conflict looks like to them. Healthy conflict will differ from team to team, organization to organization, and culture to culture. Having an open and honest conversation helps to set the parameters and make everyone more comfortable.

Mine for Conflict.

One of the best ways to boost the level of healthy conflict is to mine for it. That is, when you suspect there is some unshared disagreement lurking in the room – call it out. Gently demand that people come clean on their concerns and their disagreements.

You might even start this around the first conversation about conflict. If your organization hasn’t fostered conflict before, there will likely be some dissenting opinions on it – see if you can bring those out onto the table.

Saying something like, “I know conflict can be uncomfortable and we haven’t encouraged it previously so I’m sure some of you don’t think we should encourage it – this is a great opportunity to start. I’d love it if someone would disagree with me and start some conflict around the topic, with no risk.”

Celebrate conflict in the workplace when it occurs.

That’s right, celebrate. When you’re in a team meeting and two people are debating, arguing, challenging each other’s ideas and points of view, interrupt them momentarily to let them know that what they’re doing right now, is GREAT. Thank them because the debate they’re having is going to lead to better decisions and is going to help the team and the organization be stronger.

So, it’s Valentine’s Day in much of the world and we’re promoting conflict in our blog. That might seem counterintuitive but, in fact, we think it’s right on point.

Because, you see, holding back conflicting ideas leads to personal conflict — the bad kind of conflict. It leads to resentments, frustration, exasperation and working behind each other’s backs at cross purposes.

All of that can happen with loved ones too. So on this Valentine’s Day, it might be a good time to ask yourself, “Am I being honest and forthcoming with my partner? Are we able to have honest, challenging conversations to make our relationship stronger?”

Something to think about.

Coach’s Questions

How good is your team at conflict? When was the last time your team members felt comfortable openly challenging each other’s ideas for the good of the company? What can you do to help it along? What might hold you back?