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Work From Home

The Two Causes of Conflict Within a Team: And How to Resolve Them

(With specific tips for remote teams!)

Teams have conflict. It happens. Whether it's disagreeing with your manager's feedback, going head-to-head with a coworker for a promotion, or feeling supreme levels of annoyance at the department head who consistently claims credit for work he didn't do, all of us have gotten into it at some point on the job. (One of my favorite personal conflicts was when a woman who worked for me refused to use our publication's style guide when communicating on behalf of the business. Yes, I once found myself screaming in a newsroom about the need to use size-16 Tahoma in marketing materials rather than size-12 Times New Roman. But I promise I'm better at dealing with conflict now.)

Two main causes of conflict within a team:

Whether we're talking about remote teams where everyone works from different locations (whether by design or because COVID-19 required it) or traditional office settings, conflict at work tends to stem from one of two places:

1. Substantive or task-based conflict arises when people clash over a specific goal or action. This kind of conflict is usually contained to the issue at hand and can be more straightforward to solve. For example, you as an engineer want to get to work on coding a new feature, but your product manager might want to deploy you to fixing an old bug instead, and you disagree about the right use of your time.

2. Emotional or interpersonal conflict arises when people can't get along. The root issue might be jealousy, insecurity, annoyance, or just plain incompatibility. It can be harder to solve emotional conflicts, since you're unlikely to change someone's entire personality. As an example, if you hate interacting with your fellow sales rep because she's self-obsessed and constantly gossips about the rest of the team, that's an emotional conflict that you can't sit down and cut through quickly.

Within task-based conflict, your team might struggle with:

  • Competition for resources that pits people against each other
  • Disagreement over strategy where there's no clear path forward
  • Planning issues that reveal weaknesses in people or in processes

Within interpersonal conflict, your team might have issues with:

  • Differences in behavioral styles that lead to frustration or misunderstandings
  • Failure to take responsibility that leads to resentment and lack of a team attitude

And there are some causes of conflict that can be both substantive and emotional:

  • Communication issues, whether they're pet peeves or structural inadequacies in how your team communicates
  • Cultural issues, where your team's culture is a negative and toxic one that either allows or actively supports pettiness, bullying, or gossip

Remote teams will see all of the above kinds of conflict, but might have unique issues, too, including:

  • Loss of context and communication signals. Teams that don't work face-to-face and communicate mainly over email or messaging apps miss out on the trove of information that human beings communicate through body language and facial expressions. That makes it easier for a message to be misinterpreted or someone to take offense to a perceived tone.
  • No informal run-ins. If you work in the same office and get a weird vibe from a coworker, you can grab them casually in the hallway and ask them if there's anything wrong. Working remotely means you may need to be more purposeful about addressing conflict when it happens, whether that's in a team meeting or a direct message (more on those options later).

Even though interpersonal conflict can be more complicated, both kinds of conflict can be resolved. Remote teams that don't have the option to quickly pull everyone together into a room to solve a problem are at a bit of a disadvantage—but at the same time, their focus on constant communication can actually be a boon in fixing issues and making sure they don't happen again.

Exercises to resolve conflict (whether in-person or remote)

All of these exercises share a common framework, which can be summed up as "understand what the problems are, understand why they're happening, and create a plan for the future." Sometimes the plan will be to do nothing, like with some interpersonal conflicts where you can't force two people to like each other. But you need to be aware of what's going on and why if you're going to manage conflicts well. Try one of these methods:

Diagnose issues with your team.

Get into the nitty gritty. When an issue arises, make it an agenda item at the next team meeting, and have someone who isn't part of the conflict walk through a resolution process. (Since issues will happen all the time, a good practice is to have a standing "issue resolution" agenda item for every meeting and update it with whatever the biggest problem of that week is.) Start by stating the problem, then have the people involved explain what should have happened versus what did happen, why it happened, and what they'd do differently next time.

Example: Your team released a product update that was full of errors. Your manager brings it up at a team meeting and has the head developer explain what went wrong. She says that normally, a release goes through two stages of testing before being shipped, but that this time around, it only went through one, since half the team was busy doing recruiting interviews on the day the update was meant to go live and no one was around to help with the testing. Your manager and the head developer agree that next time, if they're short on resources, they'll delay release instead of pushing through an imperfect product.

Communicate productively and personally.

No blame game here. Find a direct way (face-to-face or over the phone is best) to touch base with the person you're in conflict with. Communicating productively around conflict means understanding why you are upset, communicating that using "I" statements and not blaming others, and communicating a need and a suggested resolution.

Example: You're pissed that your coworker left you off a meeting invite for a check-in with your client, so you ask him if you can do a 1:1 call. On the call, you say, "Yesterday, when you left me off of the client invite, I felt frustrated, as I didn't get a chance to present my work and build a rapport with the client. In the future, I'd appreciate it if you could double-check the invites to make sure I'm on them. I'd also like you to send a note to the client introducing me so that we can start building a relationship. Does that sound reasonable?"

Create a space for surfacing conflicts.

If your team doesn't already have one, suggest that you start a special channel for logging problems as they happen. You can ask to make it anonymous, if you're worried about retribution, or you can keep it tied to employee names. Send in issues big and small, from disagreements with management on corporate strategy to someone forgetting to send a new hire welcome email and making said new hire feel awkward on their first day.

Invest in conflict training.

So much of what flusters us at work is due to bad communication, whether our own or others'. Not everyone has been exposed to productive, positive communication techniques before (like the therapists' tips mentioned above), and investing in bringing that to your team can bring huge payouts. Look at training companies or consultants who specialize in effective communication and see if they can do a live session, whether in-person or over a videoconference, for your team.

They should cover things like:

  • Keeping discussions about interpersonal conflicts relegated to behavior, not personality (saying "Sometimes you don't give people time to ask questions when you're presenting" versus "You're impatient and condescending")
  • Listening actively and repeating what you understand (after someone shares their perspective, saying, "So what I am hearing is that you felt unappreciated" instead of jumping in with solutions or disagreements)
  • Learning how to self-soothe when you're too upset to communicate well (asking if you can take a break before continuing and going on a walk, listening to music, or taking a few deep breaths in private)

Conflict at work isn't fun—but it doesn't have to derail you, either. It happens, and learning how to communicate productively through it will serve you well at work and beyond.

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