Four Common Patterns of Team Disputes and Strategies for Resolution

Four Common Patterns of Team Disputes and Strategies for Resolution

If you’ve ever led or been part of a team, you’re familiar with the inevitable and often disruptive presence of internal conflicts. Many leaders tend to avoid intervening in these disputes, hoping that rational team members will resolve issues on their own. However, studies indicate that leaders often devote about 20% of their time to managing such disputes.

Take the example of Barbara, a senior executive, who after a tough day of setbacks, called for a team meeting to strategize a comeback. Instead, the meeting quickly devolved into a blame game, forcing Barbara to rethink her approach to avoid further chaos.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve analyzed a myriad of team disputes across various settings—from executive teams in global corporations to production lines in China, and business students at leading universities. Our goal has been to characterize these conflicts, understand their progression, and develop strategies to enhance team performance.

Despite cultural and contextual differences, we’ve identified four primary types of team conflicts. Our findings suggest that proactive conflict resolution by managers, which considers the interests of the entire team, can foster trust, lead to better decisions, and enhance implementation. Below are the identified conflict patterns and management strategies.

Isolated Dissenter: Occasionally, conflict centers around a single team member who may be viewed as difficult or uncooperative, or who challenges the status quo. Such conflicts are seen in about 20-25% of cases.

If a team faces this type of conflict, it’s crucial not to alienate the individual. Using them as a scapegoat or suppressing their views with a majority vote can obscure underlying issues, such as personal difficulties or an unclear role. Instead, adopting a perspective-taking approach, where sincere questions are posed to understand their viewpoint, can alleviate tension and enhance team insights. This exposure to different perspectives can lead to broader, more innovative thinking.

Avoid general team-building activities aimed at addressing issues caused by a single disruptive member. Instead, targeted one-on-one interventions can be more effective in fostering understanding and cooperation.

Dyadic Disagreement: The most frequent conflict, occurring in about 35% of cases, involves disagreements between two team members. This situation often does not escalate to involve others, as team members typically refrain from taking sides.

If the conflict is personal, private mediation might help the individuals express and reconcile their viewpoints. If it’s task-related, however, such disagreements can actually benefit team performance, as they encourage the refinement of ideas. Facilitating these discussions in smaller, informal settings can be particularly productive.

Subgroup Rivalries: When two subgroups within a team clash over goals or decisions, a conflict involving 20-25% of teams arises. This division can create a polarized environment where compromise seems unreachable.

Introducing new ideas or alternatives can help break the deadlock by aligning subgroup interests and encouraging compromises. This approach can lead to a more comprehensive and mutually acceptable solution.

Collective Discontent: Though less common, occurring in less than 15% of cases, conflicts may involve the entire team. These often arise from poor performance and the subsequent blame-shifting.

In such situations, it’s essential to focus on collective goals and identity rather than individual faults. Team discussions should concentrate on future improvements rather than past failures.

In advising Barbara, who was dealing with a full-team conflict, we recommended shifting the focus from blame to collaboration, which changed the meeting’s tone to a more constructive and solution-oriented discussion.

Customized Conflict Management Understanding the specific pattern of team conflict helps in effectively addressing it. It’s important to tackle conflicts at their source and ensure that solutions are tailored to the involved parties. Avoid generic solutions like team-building retreats unless the issue involves the entire team. When dealing with evenly split factions, introduce creative alternatives to foster the integration of viewpoints.

By addressing conflicts close to their origin and tailoring interventions accordingly, leaders can mitigate long-term negative impacts and enhance team dynamics.


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