escalating conflict

Is escalating conflict threatening your team?

In our last blog, we looked at conflict and individuals: How to recognize it in ourselves and others, and how resolving conflict always starts with “the why.”

Escalating conflict isn’t just stressful for individuals, of course. It can wreak havoc with teams, leaders and workplace morale overall.

Productivity and performance suffer for a few reasons:

  • A team that lacks cohesion is not going to be as effective as a team where everyone trusts and works well with each other.
  • What happens when there’s escalating conflict in the workplace? Leaders are going to be dealing with the fallout — everything from team members seeking advice or support to missed deadlines and everything in between — instead of their own work.
  • When there’s escalating interpersonal conflict, some folks involved are going to lose focus and be anxious or stressed — and even bystanders might be on edge. It’s not unusual to see increased sick time and longer breaks as people avoid work.
  • If there’s tension in a workplace, everyone can feel it. There’s a current of unease that ripples through, and many times there are destructive behaviours at play like gossip and triangulation that can make things much worse.

As a leader, you might not always catch on that there is escalating conflict until things boil over. People can be angry with each other but appear very civil — or you might be so busy focusing on other issues that you haven’t noticed the subtext.

Here are some ways to tell when escalating conflict is an issue:

  1. The focus shifts from the problem to the person. “He’s being unreasonable with his expectations of us on this project.” “She’s not willing to be a team player.”
  2. Issues are rehashed. Time passes and people are still bringing up earlier resentments or frustrations. “I can’t rely on them. They’re going to miss the finer details like they did on XYZ.” “They made a mistake on X last month and…”
  3. There’s resentment. This can show up as people who don’t want to work together on new projects. “Do I have to work with her? She’s going to take all the credit and I do all the work.”
  4. You get a sense that folks are disengaged and reluctant to discuss things. People become frustrated and discouraged to a point that they don’t want to discuss it anymore. This is characterized by a “what’s the use?” attitude.
  5. People are taking sides and align with a group that believes one way or another (often belief is tied to ideas about others). This is often characterized and grown by Triangulation. ‘Don’t you think Jason is taking the wrong approach on this?’
  6. Time and effort are spent protecting those groups. Folks are entrenched and focus on reinforcing their opinions rather than tackling the issues or problems and finding ways to agree. It’s an us versus them scenario. Everything is black or white, right or wrong — and we are right.
  7. People become openly hostile or isolated. This is when we start to see negative remarks out loud or under the breath, shouting, people storming out of meetings or avoiding discussions and interactions with team members.

When Is Conflict Good?

If you follow us and our leadership beliefs, you’ll know we often talk about promoting good conflict for team cohesion. We believe successful leadership teams MUST have good conflict to continue to succeed.

Good conflict is when members of a team trust each other, and consequently, they can have lots of differences of opinion around ideas,
goals and directions. In that case, conflict helps to find the best solutions and best ideas; it helps to drive a team toward excellent decisions.

Bad conflict, on the other hand, is interpersonal conflict. This happens when two or more people have problems with each other (and often fail to address it head-on). When trust is broken, and the dispute is personal, it has the opposite effect of good conflict on a team.

Suggestions for resolving team conflict as a leader

Be proactive. Conflict often starts with small disagreements that escalate fast. So, if you see or sense some conflict, don’t leave it to team members alone, or HR, to resolve.

Stay calm. Getting emotional will exacerbate the problem, especially if others are already getting heated.

Listen. Try to communicate in private and seek to actively listen – not just to the words, but to the emotion, to the underlying causes, to the assumptions being made. You can catch those underlying things by listening carefully and with a goal of understanding the person’s point of view, observing body language, noticing facial expressions and listening for changes in tone of voice.

Seek to be fair and impartial. Even if you initially agree with one person or group, set a goal for yourself to be impartial and listen to all points of view. There is almost never one “side” that is all right or all wrong.

Bring people together with some ground rules. Mandate things like keeping a moderate tone, listening to understand, asking open questions for understanding (not for “gotcha”), encouraging folks to share their worries, frustrations and ideas.

Try to catch your own assumptions and those of others. There is ALWAYS the possibility you are getting it all wrong. Try using phrases like, “so what I think I heard…” or “what I’m understanding is…” and see if you are understanding what others mean.

Acknowledge the conflict and engage to seek resolution. Once the conflict has been recognized, everyone involved needs to agree upon reaching a resolution. Try to see the conflict from the viewpoint of your other team members and focus on the things you can agree on.

Be patient. Resolving interpersonal conflict can take time. It starts with both solving the small issues and helping people to see good intent from each other on the bigger stuff.

Follow up. Don’t assume one intervention solved the problems – these things take work.

Depending on your personality style, you might walk right into high conflict situations with confidence, find conflict very uncomfortable or you might prefer to try to make peace or focus on tasks rather than get to the root of things. There are also going to be some folks you’re much more comfortable talking with than others because the personality styles of your team members affect conflict in the workplace, too.

The good news is that you can learn ways to manage and address escalating conflict — ways that take into account different personality styles.

If you’d like to learn how to fix problems and build a stronger team, our live online Productive Conflict Course is designed to help people at all levels in an organization learn how to deal with conflict. This isn’t a conflict resolution course, but rather a way to become more aware of conflict behaviours (yours and other people’s) and how to adjust them — which makes it ideal if you want to register for yourself and some members of your team. Learning how to make conflict more productive improves relationships and workplace results.

Coach’s Questions:

What signs of conflict on your team have you noticed? Or have overlooked? What could you do better or differently with your team to manage conflict? What steps will you take to get there?