Teams will inevitably have differences of opinions between members, different ways of thinking and problem solving, and some very different personalities. I believe there are two broad categories of conflict that can happen within teams:

  1. Ideological conflict around issues of work, and
  2. personal conflict around issues of personality.

As you can imagine there can be significant overlap and one can fuel the other. We want to encourage ideological conflict in a healthy way—the debate about the best way to do something to achieve team goals, and so on. Such constructive conflict of ideas help push things forward. When personal conflict comes into play it’s often destructive—there is pride, politics, shame, personal judgments and unhelpful biases that can derail a team. One form of conflict needs to be encouraged so that everyone has a voice and the other needs to be confronted to avoid derailment. For both to happen effectively we need to have nurtured trust within the team. Let’s look at ideological conflict first.

To be able to have robust discussions around issues that are key to the organisation there needs to be a culture of safety—this is foundational from our study of neurobiology and basic psychological needs. If there is fear, fear of conflict, fear of rejection, fear of judgment, then the situation doesn’t feel safe and ideas will be withheld ( while the most dominating and assertive ones will likely be the only voices). The best ideas, and answers, may be left undiscovered by the team, people will feel unseen, unheard, undervalued and judged, and the potential of the company is compromised.

There also has to be an attitude of openness to opposing ideas and a willingness to go with the collective wisdom of the team—it’s the humble pursuit of what’s best. Every team member should say everything that needs to be said in team meetings and not in after-meeting gossip sessions behind closed doors.

Ideological conflict is supposed to be about the work but it’s difficult, if not impossible, for it not to feel personal when there is opposition or criticism of your ideas. The feelings of personal rejection come out of an automatic response from our limbic system (our “emotional brain” – more on this in subsequent posts) before we could rationalise that it’s “not personal.” The thing about ideological conflict is that it is always going to feel uncomfortable, especially from the perspective of our emotional brain, but is necessary for good team work to be achieved. So we need to be committed to working through issues even if it feels uncomfortable. This will build resilience individually and as a team.

What can help when engaged in ideological conflict is a reminder that “this is good.” Remind the team that what they are doing, in this disagreement, is healthy and productive. The worst thing a leader can have is a team who always agrees with him or her, even if they really don’t—same applies within a team. Encourage everyone to speak their mind, argue their point, challenge the proposal, and when they do remind them that it is the right thing to do (because in the midst of conflict they are probably feeling very uncomfortable and wondering if it really is the right thing to do).

Now what about personal conflicts?

When members of the team are not behaving like team players, when they are not honouring the culture, other members, or the company—they are undermining safety and trust—then confrontation needs to take place to ensure people are feeling safe, seen, heard, valued, and not judged. It’s difficult enough to engage in ideological conflict, but when it becomes personal our limbic systems (emotional brain) take over and we want to run, fight, or shut down, sometimes quite literally. It is everyone’s responsibility to stop or prevent personal attacks by confronting the one attacking.

Such confrontation should come out of a spirit of accountability—the willingness to give good information and feedback to team members when they are not performing to the standards of the team or honouring the culture of the organisation. Such confrontation should not only come from the leadership but also as peer-to-peer accountability.

The only effective way to confront people is when they feel safe to be confronted. That is, there is no danger of rejection, humiliation, or some other painful outcome of the confrontation. We need to maintain the relational aspect of honour in the culture while effectively confronting issues. In extreme cases where there is obvious abuse that needs to be shut down immediately then you are best to confront in a strong and unapologetic way—even if the abuser may feel some humiliation and pain. You, however, as the one confronting, will not confront with the same tactics of abuse, but out of honour for everyone involved. Take the abuser aside and calmly point out the culture, ethics, and basic human rights he has just violated and then fire him—if that what the extreme circumstance requires.

As leaders we want people to own their problems and to work at resolving whatever those problems are—we want to increase their sense of control over themselves. To do this we can’t work harder on another’s problem than they are willing to work on it themselves. We need them to realise they have a choice to take accountability and to act to resolve whatever the issue might be. We can give them good objective information about how they are acting, and then leave it to them. Let them know that they have complete freedom but exercising one set of freedoms will be a choice to stay in the team and another choice will mean they have to leave the team. They are in control of what they do, and you, as leader, have the power to exercise consequences for their choices.

We can respond to another’s issues in ways that do not foster the culture of honour or encourage ownership of the problem by the person themselves. The first is a passive, dismissive, or avoidant attitude that is afraid of confrontation becoming complicated, heated, or messy. This avoidant stance does little to resolve anything, and will communicate to other team members that you either don’t care or don’t see the issue as an issue. You might just want to keep the peace, but this is not how a peace maker operates. Another way of responding to an issue is an approach style that’s aggressive or dominating, where you are demanding change from a superior position. This will unlikely bring out the problem solver in the other person but more likely trigger a stress response and throw them into an amygdala driven fear response to either run away, stand and fight, or collapse in a heap. Then there is the combination of both approach-avoid styles, the passive-aggressive solution. This is typified by an internal anger and resentment about the problem and the person with the issue and a back-handed or undermining ways of dealing with the person in question. This confusing mix of veiled hostility and façade of being OK is neither fostering honour nor helping the other take ownership of their issue.

There is, however, an approach orientated way of confronting that comes out of choice theory and has the following characteristics:

  1. This process of confrontation is an opportunity for the confronted person to be empowered to make better choices in a culture of safety and acceptance.
  2. The confronted person is gently told how the issue or their behaviour is affecting the team or individuals.
  3. The issue belongs to the person being confronted and by gentle and careful questioning an opportunity for ownership is fostered. We understand that everyone in the team are equally powerful people who are capable of dealing with their own issues.
  4. Support is given by communicating connection—letting the confronted person feel seen, heard and valued, without judgement—encouragement and assurance.
  5. Advice is given only when it’s asked for.
  6. Boundaries are set when the confronted person demonstrates an unwillingness to acknowledge how their behaviour is affecting the team.

One of the best ways to do this is through what is known as the Socratic method—guiding people by asking the right questions in the right way, to encourage self-discovery—which gives the person in question a sense of control. You would have experienced the phenomena that when a person believes he or she has come up with the idea themselves, it’s more powerful than when they concede to the opinion of another.