Team development

Don’t let conflict ruin a good team. How to resolve conflict at work

As a leader, how effective are you at managing conflict at work?

Even the best peacekeepers among us find ourselves linked to disagreements we’d rather not be part of. 
It’s normal that we don’t all view workplace situations the same way – our differing values would make that unlikely - but when a difference of opinion turns into a friction-filled dispute or full-on personality clash, it needs skillful resolution. 

Resolving employee conflict is a work trend that makes sense

According to Gartner’s 9 Future of Work Trends 2024 report, employee conflict resolution is a priority. 
In every workplace, multiple factors can affect team harmony, from societal influences to ongoing low-level friction caused by different backgrounds, geographies or political beliefs.

The continuing challenges around hybrid working and never seeing certain colleagues ‘for real’, don’t make interpersonal relations any easier.

But our differences aren’t insurmountable.

If we’re well equipped to understand ourselves and those around us better, we have more chance of being productive and meeting shared goals without conflict. So let’s get to it…

When conflict occurs in a team, it’s tempting quickly minimise it, assume you know whose ‘fault’ it is, dismiss certain aspects based on previous events, or just hope that it’ll fizzle out.

Not so great for business! As any L&D professional will attest to, unresolved conflict can and does cause lost productivity, absenteeism, lawsuits, and strike action. Better to face it squarely, work out the ‘why’ and find a constructive way forward that feels workable for both/all parties.

Easier said than done? Read on!


The basis for conflict in the workplace is not always what you think…

Emotional intelligence, and the ability to empathise, plays a significant role in handling conflict.

But conflict might not just be down to the characteristics and communication styles of one or two individuals. Conflicts – petty and major - can easily be a result of deeply differing values.

It follows that the better we understand our colleagues, their values, motivations and communication preferences, the better we’ll understand the team dynamics.

What’s more, a fractious breakdown in communication is more often about perception than reality. We can make ignorant assumptions without knowing why a particular event or conversation happened the way it did. Think about the last time you witnessed two people arguing. Did you leap to conclusions about who was right and who started it?

Battling with our own daily issues as leaders may mean we have little headspace for ugly disputes. Attempting to resolve conflict within your team requires mindful, respectful, direct conversations, active listening and allowing yourself to be open to other perspectives.

It can feel like a tall order on an already difficult day.

But these skills need our attention. Whether it’s an issue between yourself and an employee or a conflict between two battling team members, you can learn to encourage better collaboration. And don’t forget that careful timing and neutral language are important factors in your role as mediator/resolver.


So how you can equip yourself? Conflict resolution pitfalls to avoid

Perception Vs. reality: Misplaced assumptions are at the root of many challenging relationships and workplace conflicts. Perceptions aren’t always accurate in emotionally charged environments. We often distort and generalise information and facts, leading us to perceptions of people or situations which aren’t true. Stick to the facts to keep unconscious bias at bay. 

At Insights, our flagship programme, Insights Discovery, begins with a workshop that empowers people to breakdown their preconceived perceptions of each other, and replace them with non-judgmental awareness. 

Missed or misunderstood context: Were there precedents to this dispute or strong influencing factors?  Identifying these might help to refresh the lens and create a different dynamic.

Over-personalisation: Encourage people to focus on the practical matter in hand. It’s helpful to acknowledge that someone’s approach is different to their colleague’s, but attacking it as the ‘reason’ for the conflict will only fuel the fire, not resolve the issue. If it’s an issue around performance or treatment of others, it’s still important to keep language neutral and avoid personality-based blame.

Over-justification: Discourage people from using their ‘bad-day’ personality profile to justify negative behaviour (assuming your team has completed Insights Discovery personal profiles and workshops!)



A word on ‘over-using’ our profiles

Using Insights colour energy language, a team member who leads, for example, with Earth Green, might dismiss their stubborn behaviour in a disagreement by justifying it with “My Earth Green energy is really high today”.

But effectively saying “It’s just how I am when I’m stressed or frustrated” isn’t an excuse for making others feel uncomfortable.

As a leader, recognise that this is a moment for the team to use their Insights Discovery profiles knowledge not as an excuse, but rather an opportunity to dial up or down colour energies they might not normally use.

It's important to do this because in this example case of Earth Green, their strong values-oriented energy might have a surprisingly negative effect on more extroverted and assertive colleagues, who may perceive this conflict style as dogmatic or plodding.

Their experience of the exchange may be very different to what Earth Green intended, but if team members are offended or upset by behaviour as well as the actual dispute, the conflict gets worse.  

To use another colour energy example, the ultra-analytical, granular approach of Cool Blue may come across as overly critical, blocking or disruptive to other colour energies who may be keen to move a project along.

Cool Blue may ‘blame’ their ‘necessary attention to detail’ tendency as a perfectly logical reason for delaying a project, thus frustrating colleagues who feel blocked, criticised or judged.

This may be a moment for a leader to encourage Cool Blue to step back and assess whether their default microscopic approach is helpful to the project, the dispute and to future team harmony. 


Tips to help us manage, de-escalate and resolve conflict

Resist judgment. Respect the differences in your team’s personalities and preferences. Understanding why someone acts as they do can actually be a weight off your shoulders. Realising how their Insights colour energy preferences interact with yours and with others, and respecting that, is a powerful shift in awareness.

Work on your patience. This can feel difficult for more impulsive types. But resist the urge to hurry resolution along before others are ready. People need to process why they’ve reacted so strongly to a situation and be given space to articulate how it makes them feel, and what they believe their approach will help to avoid or bring about. 

Brush up your communication skills. Yes, it’s an annoyingly overused term, and we might just think of good communication as speaking clearly, concisely, knowing your audience and not interrupting. But the ability to really read a situation and respond appropriately - in a way that suits specific personalities and emotions - is an art worth perfecting!

Pay attention to the three A’s:

Acknowledgement: don't silence or avoid a disagreement. Hear it out. What’s actually being disputed here? Is everyone agreed on that? Have you acknowledged any common ground as well as the dispute?

Active listening: what lies behind the conflict? Something much bigger and more longstanding than the apparent subject matter? What’s not being said? Does each person feel psychologically safe and properly heard in a discreet setting by all sides?

Awareness others' communication style: In Insights language, this means identifying the dominant colour energy that each colleague has as their default approach (which affects their communication style) and possibly encouraging them to dial up and down the other three colour energies to suit the situation. 


Gartner research analyst Tina Nunno cites her biggest epiphany from 2022 research among 400 CEOs as being how critical it is to match your own conflict style and techniques with the personality and style of the person you're working with or trying to influence.


Helping imperfect humans resolve conflict

You might well need to bring in the HR team in more serious disagreements. It will be necessary in disputes involving bullying, discrimination and aggression, in union/labour management situations or for discussions around pay or performance management. 

People in HR roles are typically more experienced at dealing with difference and emotions that affect workplace performance, but in some cases, their presence might also escalate the situation, so it pays to help non-HR leaders and managers develop effective conflict resolution and interpersonal skills too.  

After all, running a team is about so much more than project plans, goal-setting, workloads, delegating, monitoring progress and managing budgets. 

Developing our interpersonal skills - understanding ourselves and others better as imperfect humans with contrasting viewpoints around social and political issues - is a priority in the fragmented workplaces we’re experiencing.

We simply can’t expect all our colleagues to communicate with us in the way that we prefer, and we shouldn’t judge people for communicating differently. Our tolerance grows proportionately to our awareness. If we increase awareness, we’re less likely to resent other people’s behaviour.

It’s time to take ownership of helping our flawed selves and colleagues. We can get better at managing difference and recognizing that, in most cases, incompatibility doesn’t mean that someone is a bad person or wishes us harm. And, if we understand our own personality profiles and preferences, we can reduce friction by communicating in ways least likely to trigger others’ ‘bad behaviour’.

Even the biggest conflict-avoiders among us will benefit from improving conflict management skills and, crucially, developing greater awareness of the kind of behaviour and assumptions that can cause conflict in the first place.