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  • Toby Sinclair

How To Navigate Team Conflict | Coaching Skills for Technology Leaders

how to navigate team conflict

Imagine you are observing these two teams solve a problem:

Team A - Lots of enjoyable discussions and reinforcement of each other's ideas. Team members are having fun and it's a relaxed open atmosphere.

Team B - Heated discussion, ideas challenged and debated. There is tension in the room and at times it feels uncomfortable. There are no personal attacks but team members challenge solutions robustly.

Which group do you think will lead to the best solutions?

Research shows that although Team A is more enjoyable, Team B delivers better solutions.

This is a challenge all leaders and team members face. The most successful teams are the most challenging to manage and work in.

It's important Managers recognise that not all conflict is good.

Task Conflict vs Relationship Conflict

Adam Grant's book, Think Again, shares how "unlearning" is critical to performance.

Adam shares two types of conflict. One that is helpful. And one that can damage your team irreversibly.

When you think about conflict, you’re probably picturing relationship conflict—personal, emotional clashes that are filled not just with friction but also with animosity. This conflict is damaging to a team. Without the right leadership coaching, this conflict can go out of control. It can create irreversible damage to relationships.

There is another type of conflict, task conflict-clashes about ideas and opinions. This occurs when we’re debating whom to hire, how to build a feature and deciding on priorities.

High performing teams typically have low relationship conflict and keep it low throughout their work together.

When it comes to task conflict, high performing teams generally have this from the outset. They openly challenge each other's opinions and ideas only converging at the last responsible moment. This avoids premature convergence which is essential when dealing with complex problems.

A meta-analysis of studies showed that relationship conflict is generally bad for performance, but some task conflict can be beneficial: it’s been linked to higher creativity and smarter choices.

What Conflict Zone is Your Team In?

It's important to understand the conflict your team is engaging in. There are four zones your team will be in based upon their degree of relationship and task conflict.

To help you recognise the zone your team is in I've created this model.

Team Conflict Matrix

The Four Conflict Zones Explained

High-Performance Zone

Teams with low relationship conflict, high task conflict are in the High-Performance Zone. They challenge ideas without descending into personal attacks. Their solutions are of higher quality.

Guidance for Managers:

Reinforce task conflict as healthy behaviour. It's likely that you and some team members will find conflict intimidating. Coach team members to become confident in challenging and being challenged. A risk is the team challenge ideas without taking action. Help the team disagree and commit when needed.

Comfort Zone

Teams with low relationship conflict and low task conflict are in the comfort zone. They enjoy working together and describe their work environment as fun. Their solutions will be of lower quality. Assumptions may not be challenged during development. Issues are found late in a development cycle. Over time the fun environment might turn boring or toxic.

Guidance for Managers:

It's great that the team have low relationship conflict. You should acknowledge this. Help the team engage in higher amounts of task conflict whilst maintaining healthy relationships. A great exercise to encourage task conflict is Ritual Dissent.

The ritual of donning the mask or turning the chair de-personalizes the process and the group setting (others will be subject to the same process) means that the attack or alternative is not personal, but supportive.

Overwhelm Zone

Teams with high levels of task conflict and relationship conflict will be overwhelmed. Team discussions need high emotional and cognitive energy. The team uncovers great solutions but become distracted by relationship conflict.

Guidance for Managers:

Focus on minimising relationship conflict. This is one of the most challenging areas a manager navigates. It's tempting to quickly resolve the relationship conflict. There is a high risk of escalation and creating a drama triangle.

The first step is to understand the level of relationship conflict:

  • Level 1 - A simple misunderstanding that can be resolve through mediation

  • Level 2 - A clash of values and experience

  • Level 3 - Outside factors such as personal relationships outside work, someone feels overlooked for promotion etc.

Level 1 conflict can be resolved through coaching and creating a safe space for members to hear each other. This can create the shared understanding required to move forward. It might be that team members are attributing the task conflict to a. personal attack. Using techniques like Ritual Dissent can help the team members move from relationship to task conflict.

Levels 2 conflict can be resolved by helping team members gain a deeper understanding of each other's values. This requires significant safety for teams to engage in this dialogue. You may need to seek an outside facilitator.

Level 3 conflict is the most difficult to resolve. Depending on the depth of conflict there might be no way to resolve it. In this case, you can seek external support but a change of personnel could be needed.

Toxic Zone

Low task conflict and high relationship conflict is a toxic environment. Task output will be low quality and team members will hate coming into work. You will struggle to retain and hire team members. This team will have a bad reputation.

Guidance for Managers:

Of all the conflict zones this is the most challenging to resolve and navigate. It's the easiest zone for you to be drawn into a Drama Triangle. Taking a step back and looking at the big picture might be the best approach.

What factors in the environment are enabling this relationship conflict to emerge? Is the team overwhelmed with too much work? Is there time and space for the team to listen to each other? How are the team incentives reinforcing the current behaviour? By focusing on the environment you not only solve this issue. You also introduce systemic solutions that stick.

If all approaches fail to resolve the situation then it's likely you will need to change the team personnel. You might consider moving a team member to another team or other actions if the conflict is not repairable. Pay careful attention not to jump to removing dissenting team members. Encouraged in the right way and they can be the right people to help your team engage in more task conflict.

Your Takeaway

Take a moment to think about the conflict zone your team is in most. How is this helping or hindering your team's performance?

Your role as a manager is crucial in all zones. Navigating conflict can be one of the most challenging activities for a manager. Using this model can help you navigate these challenging situations.


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