Bringing a group of passionate, talented individuals together to work on a common goal is the goal of every leader. But even the best teams in the world can disagree! While different perspectives are vital to the success of any business, without effective conflict management, those differences of opinion can fester and breed resentment.
Left unresolved, conflict in the workplace can result in a toxic working environment and unhappy staff. As such, conflict management is one of the most necessary skills in a leader’s toolbox. Managing, growing, and developing a productive team is extremely difficult without it!
In this post, we’ll explore how your team can approach conflict management productively and create a safe space for exploration, discussion and resolution.
You’ll find practical tips for every stage of managing a conflict and we’ll include conflict management techniques to help you facilitate the process too!
- What is conflict management?
- What are some common causes of conflict in the workplace?
- How to successfully manage and resolve a conflict
Conflict management is a process of guiding groups safely and productively through a thorough exploration, discussion, and resolution of a conflict or issue.
Effectively managing conflict means helping everyone be heard, facilitating a fair, equitable space for discussion, and limiting the potential for unproductive practices. Conflict management also means being able to identify sources of conflict, enabling others to participate, and build skills to help prevent and navigate conflict productively.
It’s important to note that conflict management isn’t always a straightforward or linear path. Some conflicts need to be revisited, evaluated, and built upon as teams and organizations grow. Successfully managing conflict in the workplace means being committed to an ongoing cycle of discovery, exploration, discussion, and resolution.
All of us are likely to include conflict, friction, and interpersonal issues at some stage in our working lives. While individual differences can be part of what makes a team successful, creative, and resilient, they can also be a cause of conflict.
Remember that while conflict in the workplace is almost inevitable, the way that conflict is handled and approached is entirely in our control. Identifying the potential causes of workplace conflict can be a great start when trying to build your conflict management skills.
Here are some of the most common causes of workplace conflict though bear in mind this is not exhaustive, and you should be vigilant for potential issues specific to your team and organization.
- Power imbalances and differences in status
- Closed, broken-down communication
- Rigid hierarchies
- Conflicts of interest
- Lack of clear ownership
- Team siloing
- No alignment on goals on shared purpose
- Difference in values or ideologies
- Performance expectations
- Lack of resources or support
- Overdependence on certain parties
Conflict in the workplace can occur whatever the size, makeup, or happiness of an organization. While toxic workplaces are more likely to result in conflict, even happy workplaces can see issues arise. Whenever you bring together a group of people to work on something they care about, differences of opinion can become something that needs to be addressed.
When conflict becomes a problem, it’s vital you follow a process to manage the issue and find a solution productively. Conflict handling can become problematic if people involved don’t trust that a solution will be found or that management doesn’t care about the issue.
Effective conflict management creates a safe space to explore the issue, discuss the effects it is having and then help the group create a solution together.
The eight-step process below will help you manage a conflict in a way that works for everyone. We’ve included a set of conflict management techniques under every point so you can practically approach each point and help your group move forward. Let’s dig in!
- 1. Help everyone speak up and be heard
- 2. Correctly identify the cause of the conflict
- 3. Reach a shared understanding
- 4. Cocreate the solution
- 5. Set clear actions and responsibilities
- 6. Build emotional intelligence
- 7. Debrief and collect insights
- 8. Evaluate progress and follow up
When resolving a conflict, it can be tempting to try and rush to the end. Especially if you believe you know the cause and solution to the problem. But taking this approach can create further issues if you don’t first take the time to hear everyone out.
Often, conflict arises because people aren’t being listened to, or because someone feels like they aren’t being understood. Taking time to ensure everyone has a chance to speak and be heard is an important part of conflict management you can’t afford to miss.
Skipping this step can mean some people don’t have their issues raised or worse, that the group doesn’t want to hear what they have to say. This ill-feeling can quickly get worse and lead to disengagement. When solving conflict, it’s a priority to create a safe space for sharing that helps everyone move forward together. The following activities are great for achieving just that!
Most teams want to help all their members be heard and share their thoughts – particularly during times of conflict. The problem is that unstructured discussions or certain frameworks don’t actively create space for everyone to contribute and be heard by others.
1-2-4-All is a proven technique to facilitate meaningful group discussion. Start with a round of silent self-reflection on a central question related to your conflict. Move on to pair and small group discussion before then sharing with the larger room.
It’s much easier to feel heard in pairs and small groups and by going through this process, everyone can air their concerns meaningfully. Be sure to mindfully choose your core discussion point and brief everyone to listen and be respectful for best results!
Some attempts at resolving issues fail because of the format of the meeting. A traditional group discussion can lead to heated exchanges and some people may not get a chance to be heard.
Take a Stand is an activity that explores an alternative way to surface feelings and help everyone make their opinion known. Start by asking participants to imagine a line where one end equals zero while the other end equals ten. Next ask a series of questions to surface how people are feeling and have people arrange themselves on the line based on their answer.
For example, you might ask “How well are we communicating as a team? 0 is not communicating at all. 10 is perfectly open and clear communication.” Have people discuss their position on the line with the person next to them. Afterward, move towards a group discussion to get opinions from people at various points on the line.
Having everyone stand on the line means you can get a quick read on group feelings and focus on those areas that need attention. Plus, everyone’s opinion is out in the open without any possibility of being talked over or shot down!
Using methods designed to help everyone in a group speak up and be heard is integral when it comes to solving conflict. But how can we go further and create a working atmosphere where people are ready to listen and enable others to speak?
Heard, Seen, Respected is an activity designed to help a group walk in the shoes of others, listen more deeply and build empathy. Start by asking pairs to share a story of a time when they did not feel heard, seen, and respected. Next, ask groups to reflect on the experience and discuss patterns they see in these examples.
Try this activity when you want to help your group develop their conversational skills and be better listeners. The result will be a team of better, more empathetic listeners than will also feel more compelled to speak up and be heard.
When kicking off a conflict resolution meeting or workshop, it’s a great idea to get a temperature check from the room. But how can we encourage honest participation if people are upset as a result of recent conflict?
Rollercoaster Check-in is a simple but powerful way of opening your sessions and checking in with your team. Start by drawing a wavy line to represent the rollercoaster of group feelings on a whiteboard. Next, invite participants to draw themselves on the rollercoaster, depicting the main way they are feeling.
By reframing the check-in this way, your group can surface their feelings more safely and openly than by simply engaging in open discussion.
One of the most important steps in resolving a conflict is correctly identifying the actual cause of the issue. If you don’t take the opportunity to go deeper and find out what the true nature of the conflict is, any solutions are unlikely to resolve the issue.
Remember that identifying the cause of a conflict needs to come after everyone has had a chance to speak. It’s important not to rush to judgment and try to predetermine the cause of conflict.
If one person is upset because they feel their work isn’t being valued and they lash out verbally in a meeting, your first instinct might be to talk to that person about meeting etiquette.
By exploring the conflict, you might find that the deeper cause of the conflict is that the person doesn’t feel valued by the team or that you need to find time to celebrate wins as a group. Only by correctly identifying the root cause can you and your team move towards solving the actual issue.
In our experience, people often have different perspectives on why a conflict has occurred. Explore these perspectives together before then aligning on the root cause of the conflict.
It can be a challenge to discuss the conflict in the workplace while keeping things productive and neutral. Finding the root cause of conflict often means finding space to share fears, anxieties, and challenges safely.
Stinky Fish is a method designed to enable everyone in a group to share what’s bothering them. The metaphor of something you carry around but don’t talk about while it gets stinkier and stinkier can be especially effective at helping a group approach conflict analysis.
This activity is particularly useful if you’re not quite sure what the issue is, but know that there’s conflict and challenges in your team that need to be surfaced and solved.
Some conflicts have a more obvious cause than others. When you are stuck on identifying what’s causing conflict on your team, it can be helpful to reframe the conversation and explore the problem from a new angle.
With Speed Boat, start by drawing a boat with several anchors attached. Identify the boat as a topic such as team cohesion or team happiness, and ask participants to brainstorm what things might be holding the boat back. From this perspective, you can surface all those things that might be causing conflict on the team without getting bogged down in attaching blame.
Follow with a round of voting on which anchors are the most important and move towards a more focused discussion. You can then try removing those anchors by asking the group how you might fix them as a team.
Successfully diagnosing a problem and identifying the true cause of a conflict means going deeper. Some conflicts that seem simple on the surface have numerous contributing factors. Only by exploring a subject deeply and bringing all those factors into the open can you effectively resolve a workplace conflict.
Fishbone Analysis helps a group go deeper by first starting with a core conflict or issue and labeling that as the head of the fish on the diagram. Next, participants brainstorm the causes of the issue and add these as bones to the diagram. Add subcategories and additional bones to the fish by asking why these causes come up.
After several rounds of brainstorming and discussion, you’ll have a clear picture of what’s causing the core issue from multiple perspectives. End by identifying any recurring causes and prioritize those that have the largest impact on your conflict. These are what you want to work on as a group!
When a team conflict has occurred, it’s important to unpack what happened methodically to correctly identify the cause. It can be so easy for teams to get bogged down in the details and fail to understand the chain of events that can lead to conflict.
What, So What, Now What? is an effective framework for helping everyone articulate what happened and why it was important from their perspective. This approach to sharing not only helps everyone be heard but also helps surface key insights that can move the group forward.
Use this activity when you want to debrief on a shared conflict and ensure it is explored in full before developing solutions together.
One of the biggest challenges to resolving a conflict is alignment. If not everyone is on the same page and does not understand why people are upset, it’s very difficult to move forward.
Building a shared understanding means helping your group see things from other perspectives and agreeing on a path forward. Once you’ve helped everyone be heard, this means filtering down to key points and helping the group align.
These conflict management techniques are effective tools in this process. With a shared understanding, your group will then be positioned to create a solution together. Let’s take a look!
After everyone has had a chance to speak, it can be useful to align on the problems that have surfaced. Does everyone see them the same way? Only by aligning on the importance and nature of a problem can you create solutions that have an impact.
This activity from Liberating Structures helps a group consider the causes of conflict objectively. By sorting challenges based on four factors – simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic – you can create a shared understanding of issues and agree on a way forward together.
Be sure to align and find common ground on the nature of a problem before rushing to a solution. Skipping this can result in poor outcomes that might not address the issue!
We all have things we need from others in a team to be successful and happy in our work. When we feel our needs aren’t being met, or we’re unclear about what people need of us it can be frustrating for both parties.
Conflict of this nature can contribute to an unproductive working environment with unhappy employees. Thankfully, this method is an effective way of getting things back on track!
Begin by inviting your group to articulate the core needs of other individuals and parts of the organization. Each affected group must then respond to those needs with one of four options and agree to take action as a result. By being clear, concrete, and practical, you can repair misunderstandings and move beyond conflict together.
Teams are complex systems of different roles, needs, interactions, and motivations. Creating a shared understanding of that system can help a group navigate challenges, support one another and also identify causes of conflict.
Start the Give and Take Matrix by listing all of the actors in a system on both the vertical and horizontal axes of the matrix. Next, have each person add what they need from the system to the matrix. Finally, move through each cell and have each person consider what they can offer one another to help them fulfill their primary needs.
Completing the matrix helps build a complete picture of how needs flow through the system and what every actor in the system has to offer. You can also see where there might be room for improvement and create space for people to see how they can help others too!
Some conflicts can feel difficult to solve because they are large, complicated, or vague. Finding a means to analyze a conflict and break it up into manageable parts is an important step in the process.
Start by stating the core issue to be addressed in clear, simple terms. Follow by asking the group to brainstorm ideas around the issue with the statements “I wish….” or “How to….”.
Synthesize and clarify those ideas and then prioritize based on seriousness, urgency, and the speed at which the issue is growing. By sorting challenges relating to the conflict in this way, your group can align easily on the nature of the problem and then choose which aspects to focus on too.
The best solutions are those that everyone in the team has a part in creating – this is even more true in the case of group conflict. By working together on the resolution to an issue, you can ensure it is in everyone’s interest. Remember that any conflict management process is improved when you involve all of the affected parties in creating the solution.
The result is a solution that is fit for purpose and addresses everyone’s concerns. This allows ample buy-in from your team and also helps highlight any weak points in the strategy.
Let’s take a look at activities designed to help a group collectively come up with a solution to the conflict.
Creating an effective solution as a team means tapping into everyone’s collective wisdom. Particularly when trying to develop a solution to the conflict, it’s important to explore different ways of thinking rather than arguing over which is best.
Six Thinking Hats is a great method for exploring a problem from various points of view and co-creating the solution. Start by explaining the six hats and their different approaches to the problem. For example, use the green hat to generate ideas, the yellow hat to explore benefits and values, and the red hat to explore feelings and intuition.
Ensure everyone uses the same hat at the same time and consider developing sequences of hats to address different problems. Cocreating the solution to your conflict with a clear framework is a surefire way to ensure buy-in from the whole team.
Effectively resolving a conflict often means going beyond the current issues. Understanding the patterns and conditions that lead to the conflict will also want to be addressed to prevent further issues and get everyone back on track!
Discovery & Action Dialogue is a 7 step discussion designed to uncover and share practices and tacit solutions from within the team. Surfacing these with a proper framework means that the group can discover better solutions to common problems together.
Begin by asking the group how they know when problem X is present before asking successive questions to help everyone consider how they can contribute to solving that problem.
While conflicts in the workplace can come in all shapes and sizes, it’s worth noting that most disagreements occur between two individuals working together. Taking time to explore and repair these close working relationships can have massive benefits to the team at large.
With this activity, start by having each person in your team of two writes down how they think they could help the other person and how the other person could help them. By keeping things simple, you can help improve future interactions between employees and repair areas of common conflict. Be sure to guide participants to give and take equitably and be clear and concise with their requests for best results.
It can be hard to move towards resolution if your team is stuck in the same old ways of thinking. Finding space for innovation and turn a conflict on its head can be one of the most effective ways to generate impactful solutions.
Start this activity by asking the group to make a list of all the worst things they could do to resolve the current conflict. You’ll find this reframing of the issue often elicits laughter and creativity too! Honestly assess the list and see if you are doing anything that resembles those items. Next, make a list of counterproductive behaviors and actions and discuss their impact.
Finally, explore what first steps you could take to prevent those counterproductive actions from occurring. Getting the skeletons out of the closet can be difficult. But with this reframed discussion, you can explore those issues and come up with innovative approaches too!
After you’ve figured out the solution to a workplace conflict, your group should agree on what actions should be taken to achieve it. This means agreeing on specific things that we can do both collectively and as individuals and then putting them in writing.
Effective conflict management is about enabling everyone to take responsibility while also helping them take the first steps in achieving change. These frameworks are a great next step that can ensure any solution is carried out methodically and that the core issue is resolved over time.
Just as a workplace conflict can be composed of many complex parts, so too can the solution. Simplify the process by breaking down the next steps, assigning responsibilities, and giving a clear timeframe for completion.
Who/What/When Matrix is a simple, effective method for managing expectations and tasks that come out of the conflict management process. Start by adding the name of participants responsible for taking action in the first column. Next, add the tasks they are responsible for and ask them when that task will be completed. Simple!
Remember that successfully managing any conflict means ensuring that agreed-upon actions are carried out in a timely and effective manner. Use this matrix to help a team move forward after discussing what to do and follow through on the solution!
Some conflicts have less clear points of resolution. Perhaps the change needed from your team is less structured, and you’re asking for a change in how people communicate or treat each other in the workplace.
This activity is designed to help everyone in a group identify some clear next steps they can take to achieve the desired change. This can be especially helpful if there is still a lack of clarity about what individuals can practically do to minimize conflict at work.
Start by asking the participants to imagine the workplace in 6 months from now, after the conflict has been resolved and they’ve accomplished everything they set out to accomplish. Next, ask them to write down what their vision is and then suggest concrete steps they can take to make that happen.
Finish by asking the group what the first thing is that they’ll do once they’ll return to work. The result is a team that feels enabled to start making the necessary changes to create a better work environment!
Having a clear sense of everyone involved in delivering a solution is important in ensuring it is delivered effectively. What’s more, it’s valuable to see where other people fit into the process and also get a sense of who wants to be involved in a smaller capacity.
RACI Matrix is a framework for helping a group understand everyone’s role in the process and also for agreeing on stakeholders. Start by creating a list of work that needs to be done to achieve your conflict solution and a list of roles. Set the work along the horizontal axis and the roles along the vertical axis of the matrix. Next, assign responsibility using one of four options: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed.
By assigning responsibilities, everyone on the team has a clear view of their role and where they can and should get involved. When managing conflict, it’s integral that everyone in the group understands how they can help and who is ultimately responsible for certain outcomes on the road to resolution.
Conflict is hard work. It can be emotionally draining and ask a lot of us as people. While we might not be able to prevent conflict, we can build our emotional intelligence to help manage how we engage with others. Responding calmly to conflict and treating others with empathy and care throughout is something we can all learn to improve.
These activities are designed to help you and your team build emotional intelligence, self-awareness and reconsider how we react to conflict. All of which can be instrumental in successfully navigating and managing workplace conflict.
Reconsidering how we react to conflict and pressure can be transformative. We’re all capable of overreacting or handling things in a less than ideal manner. What’s important is that we take the opportunity to reflect and learn from those instances.
Conflict Responses is an activity designed for reflection on a previous conflict. Start by having participants write down examples of previous team conflicts and then rate how they reacted. Next, ask the group to consider and discuss what behaviors and actions were helpful and unhelpful. Finally, ask your team to come up with some new guidelines for effective conflict handling based on those discussions. This reflection also serves as a catalyst for emotional intelligence and personal growth.
The resulting guidelines can then be used as a resource for future conflicts. By generating these guidelines as a team, you’ll find they are more relevant and likely to be used in practice!
Our automatic responses to what we might find annoying can be the cause of inter-team conflict. Challenging these responses and developing our emotional intelligence so we can respond better can be a key aspect of avoiding issues in the future.
In this activity, give participants the example of being annoyed at being stuck in traffic and ask them to brainstorm other everyday hassles. Give each group an everyday hassle and then ask them to come up with positive reactions to that situation.
Over successive rounds and a debriefing, your group will see how a change in mindset can help them react better to such hassles in the future. They’ll also learn that taking personal responsibility for our emotions and reactions is a vital ingredient for happy, productive teams – bonus!
Our core values are incredibly important to our sense of self and overarching happiness at work. Conflict can arise in groups where we feel our values are not being reflected, used, or appreciated. So how can we help ensure everyone’s values are celebrated and do not become a possible point of conflict?
Explore your values is a great activity to encourage reflection and help everyone in your team understand what is important to them. Begin by having everyone write down their top ten values. Then, one by one, reduce those ten values to the three most important. Ask your group to then reflect on how they might live those values more and use them in their working life.
You’ll often find that people who do not have a chance to live their core values or are put in situations that challenge their values can become embroiled in conflict. By exploring these values, you can better understand how conflict might occur and create a happier, more emotionally engaged team.
Being more emotionally intelligent often means being more self-aware of how you are doing and being open about that with your team. When you create a culture of self-awareness and honesty, you also create a team that is more resilient to conflict.
With this activity, ask your team to reflect on how they are doing on each of nine dimensions – using colored dots to share whether they believe the team is crushing it or needs help.
Discuss the results and see where your group is aligned or in disagreement. This kind of open discussion and reflection on how everyone perceives themselves and the team can help build both self and group awareness.
Resolving conflicts can be tiring and emotionally demanding in equal measure. Once you’ve finished a meeting to discuss the issue, it might be tempting to call it a day. But as with any process of solving problems, it’s important to solidify learnings, ensure alignment and leave the room on a positive note.
These activities are designed to not only conclude the session but also help agreed actions stick and help the group get closure. Be sure to use them when you’re finishing up with resolving a conflict. They help create a good atmosphere for progress outside of the meeting.
Debriefing on a successfully resolved conflict is a perfect place to recap how far you’ve come. Not only does it help everyone cement what they’ve learned, but it can also be useful to ensure alignment before closing the session.
This activity is great for sharing learning points and helping your group reflect on how their perspective has changed. Give 3-5 minutes of private reflection on the two questions above and then invite everyone to share with the group. You might even want to collect responses on a flipchart to ensure that the takeaways leave the room with every participant.
Resolving conflict can be emotionally draining and take a toll, even if the outcome was good. Taking the time to appreciate one another as people and for everyone’s role in the discussion can help create a good feeling at the end of the resolution.
Start by creating two rows of chairs to recreate the seating inside of a bus. Explain that the bus runs on positive energy and that everyone in the group will have to contribute to keeping the bus going. Next, have the participants in one row give positive feedback to those seated next to them. After 45 seconds, switch roles. Afterward, rotate passengers on the bus so that everyone gets a chance to give and receive feedback from everyone else.
We love this activity at SessionLab. Particularly at the end of a conflict, it’s great to receive positive feedback for your contributions to resolving the issue. Leaving on a positive, happy note can also help the team get closure and feel good about the session.
Some conflicts are more complex than others. When an issue has many moving parts, it can be difficult to keep track of them all. Help your participants recall and share key learnings with this activity from Thiagi Group.
Start by asking participants to reflect on a part of the conflict management process and write down what they learned on a card. Next, have participants swap cards without looking. After a few minutes, have everyone pair up, discuss and score their new cards. After several rounds, total the points on every card and discuss the highest scoring learnings as a group.
Closing a session by resurfacing key learnings and then emailing them out afterward can help ensure the solution stays front of mind for your participants.
Even after you’ve discussed a workplace conflict, come up with a solution, and implemented it, the conflict management process isn’t complete. You need a process for evaluating the progress of the team and to help ensure the resolution sticks.
Such an evaluation is also a great time for the group to reflect on their conflict management skills. You might discover there’s more to be done to help the team avoid conflict in the future or that someone on the team has a great method for cooling off when things get heated. However, you’ve chosen to handle workplace conflict, ensure you take the time to check in and evaluate afterward. This way, you’ll ensure your solution is fit for purpose, continue to create space for people to voice concerns, and move forward as a team.
When workplace issues are complicated, the solutions can be multifaceted too. Bringing those solutions home alongside all our other day-to-day work can be difficult. As such, it can be important to evaluate progress and ensure the agreed-upon solution is followed through on.
This method is designed to help a group of people effectively evaluate where a project is at and find ways to shift gear or change track if necessary. Using one of three visual evaluation methods, you can identify patterns that are helping and hindering the conflict management process.
Remember that solving a conflict is rarely a linear path. Repeating some of the discovery steps and finding space to reflect freely can ensure that any resolution is fit for the team as it continues to evolve.
Keeping things simple is always a useful maxim in facilitation – especially during the conflict management process. Once action steps have been taken and you’re asking your group to assess the landscape, being able to clearly and easily judge what’s working and not can help your group avoid unproductive discussion.
Use Start, Stop, Continue to encourage a group to celebrate what’s working, what might be hindering the process, and what the team should start doing too. Some solutions are unproven until they are put into action and can also create unexpected results. This method is great at capturing group feeling as a conflict moves towards resolution and helping them suggest simple fixes for what comes next.
When we’ve finally resolved a workplace conflict, it can be tempting to move on and try and forget it happened. This approach can hamper potential solutions and prevent the kind of reflection and action that can help a team truly process and learn from conflicts at work.
With Letter to Myself, end a conflict discussion by asking participants to write down the actions they will take afterward. They’ll also add a concrete date to complete those actions and add those things they would like to have changed by that time. Next, collect those letters and then post them back to the recipients by an agreed-upon date in the future.
This method is a way of setting some intentions for after the conflict meeting and checking yourself against them later. It means everyone can course correct, celebrate wins or double down on what’s working.
Conflict can arise even in the most progressive, happy workplaces. Whenever you get a group of passionate and talented people together, opinions can differ. What’s important is that you have a framework for handling conflict in the workplace that allows your team to discuss things safely and productively. No more shouting matches or passive-aggressive emails!
Remember that handling conflict when it occurs is tough, but it’s much easier with activities designed to facilitate a productive discussion and move your group to a resolution. Furthermore, consider taking the time to build a respectful, open culture – that way, you’ll have fewer conflicts at work and be better positioned to work through them when you do!