“There is no such thing as a conflict-free team, and you don’t want a conflict-free team,” explained Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017). “Disagreements over how the work should be done, what the goal of the work is or how we measure success” help lead to innovative ideas and even bonding between team members, she said.
However, personality conflict is different. When team members can’t seem to get along, that’s a whole different ball game. But as a manager, you should expect that this conflict will happen.
And once you’ve helped the team figure out how to work well together, be ready to start the process over again when new members come on board. “The reality is that many managers are managing teams that are fluid, given the way teams work now,” Gallo noted. “It’s rare that a manager will have five people on their team and that’s it. New people are staffed for projects, or managers are [put in charge of] a peer for a while because of the nature of special projects.”
As the team’s leader, it’s up to you to ensure that conflict on your team is dealt with. But that doesn’t mean you’re the one who should be squashing it.
Avoid Playing Referee
“It’s best for conflict to be handled between the two people having it as much as possible,” Gallo advised. “As a manager, you have to be firm about when you step in. Oftentimes people will expect you to do that over and over if you start playing referee instead of manager.”
To avoid becoming a referee, encourage your team members to work out their differences on their own. But be ready to get involved. One instance where you might have to step in is if conflict has become noticeable to you or other team members, but the involved parties don’t recognize there’s an issue or won’t take the initiative to solve it on their own. “Often, the first step is simply informing them, separately and privately, that their conflict is noticeable and affects the workplace,” explained Andrey Doichev, founder of Inc and Go, a company that streamlines the legal process of setting up a business.
Next, whether you’ve initiated the conversation or one or both conflicting team members have come to you, consider exactly how involved you want to get. For Gallo, it’s about being a supportive and available coaching resource for employees as they work to squash the beef on their own.
If you use a coaching approach, consider helping the involved parties develop empathy for each other. Ask what they think might be going on with the other person, what they might want out of the situation and to try putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. Then you can help them brainstorm potential solutions.
Some conflicts demand a manager’s involvement. If you find out that something inappropriate has happened—anything from harassment to a team member lying about work—”you have to call those behaviors out,” Gallo said. It’s best to do this privately.
Preventing Conflict in the First Place
Overall, though, the best way that managers can handle conflict on their team is to prevent it.
It can be tempting to hire people who are similar. It might seem like a homogenous approach can help prevent conflict. But the lack of diversity can itself be problematic.
Instead, “consider how someone has resolved conflict in the past. One interview question could be, ‘Describe a conflict you’ve had with a co-worker. How did you resolve it?’ ” Gallo said. “It should give insight into how they think about conflict and getting past it.”
Next, tell your team that conflict is natural and expected, but so is a professional resolution of it. This is a great time to set boundaries around how you will and won’t get involved with conflict. Explain that you expect the team to resolve it among themselves but be clear that you’re available to help coach them through it.