How to Dissolve a Group Conflict Quickly
Conflict is an unfortunate, yet an undeniable part of human existence. If you’re a team leader, then you know that your role involves that of the ‘peacekeeper’. You need to learn to dissolve conflict to guarantee the team can achieve common goals and continue performing to the highest level.
In this post, I’m going to help you identify the steps and strategies you need to take and adopt in order to dissolve a group conflict quickly.
You’ll learn about classifying the conflict, engaging in a constructive manner, and adopting strategies that help the team find an effective solution.
DEFINING GROUP CONFLICT
Conflicts are not alike. They come in all shapes and sizes, and more importantly, conflicts can have both negative and positive consequences. You therefore should never approach conflict, as it is always the same and just assume it will lead to a negative disruption in the workplace.
As I’ll show you during the post, the reasons behind the conflict can be varied and the outcome can actually lead to a beneficial result for your business – so don’t despair if your team starts arguing.
Before examining the different ways you can classify group conflicts, you should note the different types of conflicts. Group conflict essentially is just one of a subset of the five common conflict types. These five are:
- Conflict within the individual – These are generally value-based conflicts the person has within themselves. For example, if you are a vegan and you are passionate about animal welfare, you might be conflicted if you worked at a steak place and you had to serve meat, even though you find in unethical. Similarly, your position might lead to conflicts – a police officer attending a party on his free time might be conflicted with people using illegal substances, yet feel like it’s not the time and place to start arresting his own friends.
- Interpersonal conflict – These conflicts occur between two or more people and it is the most common form of conflict. The reason can vary from power conflict to conflicts in value. You might, for example, be at locker heads with another person at work over which method to use for accounting.
- Conflict between an individual and a team – Individuals might not just clash with each others, but also with a team. This would mean that one person is in disagreement with a team of people. Imagine you were a waitress and you felt the rest of the team is not putting enough effort in customer service, yet the tips (you mainly earn) were divided among the whole team. You might therefore be in conflict with the rest of the group.
- Intergroup conflict – You can also find conflict among different groups of people. This could happen in an organization as well. For instance, your accounting team might feel strongly that the sales team is not being efficient enough in cutting costs, while the sales team might disagree with the notion and feel like the accountants don’t understand their pressures.
- Inter-organizational conflict – These group-based conflicts can occur in a much larger scale, meaning two separate organizations or entities are in conflict with each other.
In this post, I’m focusing on the team-based conflicts. These are essentially interpersonal problems, which appear between two or more people on a team. Group conflict also has a disruptive element to it, even when it isn’t necessarily negative. For good and for worse, a team conflict always affects teamwork – the team doesn’t perform optimally during a conflict situation.
As the above already alluded to, group conflict can have a variety of reasons. The most common reason is an imbalance between the perceptions, goals, and values of the team.
Essentially, your opinion might differ from that of Person X and this creates an imbalance within the team and makes achieving the objectives difficult at that time. Figuring out the reasoning behind the conflict – classifying it – can be the key to solving it.
CLASSIFYING THE CAUSES OF GROUP CONFLICT
Above I identified some of the different ways conflict occurs and touched on some of the reasons people find themselves in a confrontational situation. Aside from understanding who is in conflict – an individual or a group – it’s also important to understand the causes of the conflict or the driving forces of the conflict. What is sustaining the conflict? What is the basis of the conflict?
By answering these questions and identifying the underlying causes and manifestations of the conflict, you can better resolve it. There are three key ways to classify a group conflict. You can view it through its functional attribute, its origin, and its behavior.
Conflicts within a team do not always result in a negative outcome. This essentially means the conflict situation might not result in a situation where the team is unable to perform normally or that the conflict will result it loss of objectives. Put it another way, a conflict can be either functional or dysfunctional.
As mentioned above, a functional conflict would not affect team performance in a significant manner. The rest of the team and the parties of the conflict would still be able to perform their duties and continue to produce results that are on par with the objectives. Nonetheless, there would be some sort of disagreement or argument within the team that is still worth looking into.
On the other hand, dysfunctional conflicts are those super disruptive events, where the team’s ability to work is hindered. The team is influenced by the conflict in a way that partly or wholly prevents the team from achieving the shared goals. This type of conflict can have a long-lasting negative attention and generally requires immediate attention.
Origin of conflict
You can also classify the conflict based on the origin of it. This means understanding where the conflict has started and how the situation has evolved – i.e. do people still believe the conflict is about the thing that started it all. The origins or reasons for disagreements have already been mentioned briefly. To recap, group conflicts tend to be based on:
- Values of team members.
- Goals misaligning with the expectations and vice versa.
- Roles and responsibilities of team members.
- Lack of resources.
It’s generally helpful if you understand which reason is causing the problems, as it can help tackle the issues head on. For example, if someone in the team (Person B) doesn’t like the values of a Person A, you need to consider a different approach than if the conflict was down to Person A having more resources to do his/her work.
In the case of the latter, you can solve the situation by redistribution of resources, more support for Person B, or by providing a simple explanation why A needs more resources. On the other hand, solving a conflict of values can require an effort from both employees to find a compromise.
Finally, you could also classify the conflict based on the behavior team members’ use during the conflict. Conflict doesn’t always lead to an adverse reaction, where people refuse to talk to each other. There can be positive and constructive behavior manifested during conflict. Like you had functional and dysfunctional conflict, you can also have constructive conflicts and destructive conflicts.
Constructive conflicts will help team members grow and develop as workers and human beings. The parties of the conflict use the opportunity to learn something and improve their skills. The conflict tends to end on a solution and a boost in-group spirit. On the other hand, destructive conflicts are demoralizing and often lead to more polarization within the team. They hardly have a solution, at least a positive one, and they can continue causing disruption within the team later on.
Now the reason all of the above matters is that it gives you the starting point to begin solving the conflict. If you know its classification – the who, the why and the how – you can use the right types of techniques to solve the problem.
FOCUS ON THE GOLDEN RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Conflict in a way is always a breakdown in communication. There is a clash in communication, either because something is misunderstood, misinformed, or ill shared. In order to resolve a conflict, you need to first ensure the communication channels are restored and are used efficiently.
Communication in conflict matters because it helps in meeting the fundamental need of the ego. Our egos want to be listened to, empathized with, appreciated and empowered. No matter what the conflict and the person ‘at fault’; everyone has an ego need that needs attention. So, when you start solving a group conflict, your focus should be on feeding the ego with appropriate communication.
You should employ three golden rules of engagement during a conflict situation. These are:
Listen actively and respond with empathy. Your focus should always be on ensuring all the sides of the conflict get a fair hearing. Even when the conflict might be resolved in favor of one person or the conflict seems unfair, you need to listen to both sides.
Instead of telling the group to ‘stop arguing’, you need to get people to open up about the issue at hand. Your focus needs to be on active listening. You can engage in active listening by:
- Allowing everyone to raise their opinion and explain what they think is the cause of the conflict – Your job is to ask questions that clarify the person’s position, not to give your opinion or counter argue.
- Understanding what different people are feeling – You need to see everyone’s perspective. This can help solve the problem quickly (there might have been a simple misunderstanding) and ensures people feel understood.
- Focusing on the feelings – You want to focus on outlining the feelings people are having about the issues at hand and the behaviors they think can help improve the situation.
Be active throughout the conflict management process and ensure others are included in the process. Continue engagement throughout the conflict management; your listening shouldn’t just be limited to the start of the conflict. You need to listen to: get an understanding of what the problem is, find solutions to the problems, and noticing how well the changes are implemented.
Therefore, you can’t just take in people’s opinion, come up with a solution and apply it with a top-down approach. People who are part of the conflict, directly or indirectly need to have a voice in finding the solution and in implementing it. Not only does this guarantee the solution is more long lasting, it can prevent a future conflict.
An important part of staying active as the mediator is ensuring you are seen as “the impartial middle man”. You can’t take sides on a conflict. Instead you want to help everyone understand the different perspectives at play.
Maintain and affirm the group members’ self esteem. The ego doesn’t like when it’s crushed or criticized. You can keep a conflict going on simply by nurturing resentment within the group with bad communication. If you don’t listen to one person’s opinion or you publicly tell the group someone is at fault, you hurt the ego and you cause resentment.
Even in situations where one side might be ‘right’, you need to support everyone. You want to make them feel their cries weren’t invalid or that some of their behaviors have been extremely good or beneficial. Remember the classic sandwich feedback style? You should ditch it and instead consider the Feedback Wrap, which can be especially beneficial when dealing with conflict situations. Here’s an introduction to the Feedback Wrap by Management30.com:
The above method works because it helps focus on the facts and the feelings, as well as the method going forward. This is part of maintaining a person’s self-esteem during conflict. You want to provide them support and the confidence to move beyond the conflict.
For example, Person A might be in conflict with the team because he feels he works harder than everyone else. But the team might be performing as needed and the conflict is just about the different approach to work ethic.
Instead of telling Person A to stop complaining, you need to support them and make them feel appreciated. This means understanding their frustrations with other people’s work ethic, while helping them be a better team member in inspiring others to work harder, rather than just complain about it.
HOW TO DEAL WITH CONFLICT
Once you understand the type of group conflict you have at hand and you apply effective communication methods to solving the conflict, you can focus on the actual steps that help eliminate the issue. You’ll need to take these five steps in order to resolve a conflict situation quickly.
Step 1: Acknowledge the conflict fast, but calm things down.
While you need to be quick in identifying there’s a problem, don’t try to rush things through. Conflict resolution doesn’t have to last forever, but it also can’t be rushed or forced. When you notice a problem within a team – either because you hear/see something, someone complains about a problem, or the performance suddenly drops – acknowledge it immediately.
Let the group know you are looking into the issue and start examining the reasons and communicating with the group, keeping the above tips in mind. You should never try ignoring an issue no matter how minor it seems to you or keeping things going until later, as you might turn a small problem into a big issue.
Not only can delays build resentment within the group, but it can also lead to further problems that might make finding a solution harder. Even just simply acknowledging the issue and allowing people to voice their opinions can be enough to calm things down and dissolve the immediate disruption.
Nonetheless, you also shouldn’t try finding a solution on a whim. Acknowledgement doesn’t equal pushing a solution forward. You don’t want to react to a conflict by picking ‘the winner’ and moving on. As mentioned above, there needs to be a careful assessment of the perspectives and appropriate focus on ensuring everyone’s opinion is heard. Essentially, you need to avoid rushing into negative behaviors like:
- Finding the person at fault, i.e. pointing fingers.
- Insulting group members or complaining to people about the conflict or behavior within the group.
- Making assumptions about the problems or the solutions.
- Handing ultimatums to team members.
When a conflict arises, you need to acknowledge the situation and make sure everyone in the team know you are aware of the issues and that you are going to work with the team to solve the problem. You then need to take a breather and start engaging with the team in conversation, reserving any judgment until later.
Step 2: Listen to each side of the conflict.
Like I’ve mentioned at the start, the key to solving a conflict lies in creating appropriate communication channels. This starts by listening to each side of the conflict – even the people who aren’t directly involved in it.
You want to have team members provide you with their honest account of the situation. This is often best done face-to-face, ensuring people feel comfortable to speak their minds without the fear of a backlash. You can later have a team-wide conversation as well, but it’s a good idea to allow people with the space to speak alone as well to get a more honest image of what it going on.
When you are engaging people in conversation, your focus should be on getting them to talk about the three pillars of conflict:
- What is happening?
- Why the conflict is taking place?
- How to solve the situation?
As you have people answering the above questions, you’re actually taking two steps to resolving the problem. First, you get a better idea of what is going on, as well as valuable insight and tips into how things could be resolved. But you also get the team members to rationalize and think about the situation at hand with an outsider.
This can help them understand whether there’s validity in the arguments they are making and perhaps even realize how they could instantly find a way to solve it.
Step 3: Start finding common ground.
As you engage people in conversation and you start listening to the perspectives, you need to make note of the common ground. Are there certain issues people seem to agree on? What are the common behaviors or outcomes that people are hoping to get out of the situation?
Noticing agreements can help in a conflict situation because it bridges the gap between the disagreements. It forces people to focus on the issues everyone agrees rather than the problems that are dividing opinion. When you’ve listened to people’s statements and opinions, note down all the things people agree on and start looking for a solution based on this common ground.
As I’ve explained previously, engagement is crucial. When you start finding the common group and compiling your thoughts based on the different ideas and opinions, you want to ensure the rest of the group is engaged. Don’t just note how the team agrees on improving resource management in your head, but make everyone see this is something everyone is looking to achieve. Make people acknowledge other person’s perspective and the agreements the group has.
Furthermore, you need to acknowledge your responsibility it finding the solution. Being a team manager doesn’t mean you can’t eventually have an opinion or make a judgment call on the next steps. If the conflict looks unlikely to be resolved within the group, you do need to step in.
Behavior that is out of bounds (someone is being viciously attacked or abused, for example) must also be tackled swiftly and without a ‘compromise’. Indeed, it’s crucial to understand that finding common ground doesn’t always mean compromising or forcing the ‘majority’ decision on the minority.
The fact that the majority thinks Person A shouldn’t have access to more resources might not be solved adequately by reducing the resources. Person A might actually need the resources because of Reasons A, B and C. Common ground might not be a compromise an allowing everyone access to the exact resources, but understanding the goals better and explaining to everyone the justifications why Person A needs the extra resources, i.e. increasing accountability and openness.
Step 4: Agree on a solution
Conflicts can’t just be brushed aside when things settle. Telling people about the solution and then moving on can stop the conflict from being a problem for now, but it probably won’t result in meaningful and long lasting change.
The solution should be agreed on with the whole team and the results put in writing. Discuss the solutions together, even if you need to make the final say. Find a solution that seems agreeable and fair to all parties and ensure everyone understands the reasoning behind the solution, even if they would have hoped another outcome.
Focus on the positives of the solution. Congratulate people for their efforts during the process and emphasize the importance the solution will have on helping the team thrive and reach previously agreed goals and objectives. Make the conclusion about the positives, not about punishing someone or complaining about the time the team might have lost during the conflict.
It also helps to create a more meaningful change by having everyone agree on the solution in paper. You could print out the new commitments or rules you’ve decided upon and make sure everyone signs to these rules.
The least you should do is to gather the group and make sure everyone is on the same page with the result and understands what the solution means – i.e. the behaviors that are now expected of them.
Step 5: Check up on the conflict parties regularly
Your conflict resolution is probably not the end of it. While you want the ‘peace agreement’ to last, you shouldn’t take it for granted. Even after the conflict has been solved, you want to engage in conversation with the conflict parties and ensure things are going well. What this does is show commitment on your part to ensure everyone in the team is appreciated and feels comfortable.
To check up on the conflict and how the team is doing, you should:
- Keep an eye on the team atmosphere and focus on trying to sense the mood.
- Ask how team members are doing and what positive changes they’ve noted.
- Avoid reminding people about the reasons behind the conflict, as you don’t want to open up old wounds.
- Enforce and strengthen people’s understanding of the team rules and objectives – create an environment of teamwork.
- Continue strengthening team trust and co-operation.
After a conflict situation, team-building exercises can be extremely useful. Check out the below video for some quick tips on improving team spirit:
Group conflicts can happen for a variety of reasons and they can be detrimental to the performance of the team or help the team mould in together. When confronting the issue, the quickest way to solving it is first acknowledging there is an issue and learning about the perspectives that are keeping the conflict alive.
You need to know what people feel and think, as well as help them see each other’s perspective and the common ground they share. Your role should be that of a mediator, yet a manager also can’t hide away from the responsibility of ensuring there’s a solution.
When you do find a solution, make sure everyone is happy with it and understands the reasoning behind the agreement.