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Using teamwork skills to resolve unhelpful conflicts in the workplace

A large part of being able to successfully work in a team involves using your soft skills, such as teamwork (working cooperatively with others towards a shared goal), to contribute to the team in a positive way. However, as you develop beyond this, it is important to consider not only how you contribute to your team as an individual, but also how you can help to make the team work together as effectively as possible. The first step to achieving this is to not contribute to the creation of unhelpful conflicts. Not only do unhelpful conflicts damage the productivity of an organisation, they also can also bring into question your professionalism and impact how you are seen in the business.

You may have found, across your professional development journey so far, that disagreements across a team at work are not uncommon. However, it’s important to recognise the difference here, between having a disagreement (many of which can be managed by healthy discussion), and a conflict, which is when a disagreement extends into a more significant clash and can be very destructive over time. 

As you may have experienced in your career so far, there are a number of reasons why a disagreement might evolve into a conflict (Teamwork Step 9 explores the causes of conflict further); they often start from something quite minor. As individuals lose trust in one another and descend into a negative cycle of conflict, the result is that effective teamwork can't flourish. 

So, how can we develop our soft skills to avoid letting disagreements spiral into conflicts?

Over the course of your professional development, you will likely come into contact with a wide range of people. Many of whom will have different outlooks, values, and ways of doing things. In the workplace, it is important to keep an eye out for potential conflicts amongst the people you work closely with. They are significantly easier to resolve if they are caught and dealt with early on, than if they are left to develop and grow beyond the original issue.

Here are some things you could do if you spot a conflict developing in the workplace: 

  1. Apply the principles of encouraging and valuing a diverse range of perspectives when working in a group (see Teamwork Step 6, Step 7 and Step 8).
  2. Stay focused on the task, rather than the other individuals.
  3. You can be polite to everyone, even people you don't naturally get on with.
  4. You can talk to the leader if you feel that there are elements that are unfair, or you are concerned about resources not being allocated (Leadership Step 1).
  5. Share any concerns with the other individual or individuals early, before they have grown and turned into conflicts that are much more difficult to resolve later on.
  6. Seek out additional opportunities for yourself, rather than waiting for them to be given to you.
  7. Find someone else to help arbitrate disagreements if you cannot fix them yourself – this means someone who is not involved in the controversy can help us work out a compromise or solution.

Sometimes however, for a number of different reasons, a disagreement that has not been resolved spirals into a conflict. These conflicts may, or may not, involve you. 

If you are involved in the conflict, it’s important to remember: 

  • Do not ignore the conflict – they can easily get worse by being ignored.
  • Stop and try to think objectively about the situation – that means trying to stop your emotional responses drowning out the opportunity to think logically. Staying Positive Step 4 explores some of the ways of doing this.
  • Try to see things from the other person’s perspective – think about what it is that might have caused the conflict to start with (Listening Step 12 might help with this). ‍
  • Do not think about blame – the focus should not be about who was right or wrong, but on trying to find a solution.

You will then need to talk to the other person – this is the way to speak openly about the conflict, where it has come from, what the impact is on you both on your wider team, and how you might be able to resolve it. This might be a challenging conversation, so it is essential to go into it prepared.

How to prepare for a challenging conversation: 

  • Make sure you are feeling calm – do not start the conversation if you are not feeling in a good emotional place.
  • Expect that at some point in the discussion you might expect to feel negative emotions and be prepared with some strategies for reducing this stress.
  • Pay attention to the feelings that the other person is sharing, and make sure that you are respectful about what they are sharing – it is not easy for them either (Listening Step 7).
  • You can share the emotions you are feeling too, but try to avoid blame.
  • In the end, you are likely to both feel wronged, so trying to work out who to blame is not worth it, and will not resolve the conflict. 
  • Try to agree on a way forward and to work together well in the future.

There may also be times when you need to help resolve conflict between other members of your team. In this situation, you need to set up a context where it is possible to have a good conversation. This means:

  • Encouraging team members to talk if they seem to be in conflict.
  • Set up a time and place so team members can talk without outside interruptions. If you are helping to facilitate this, make sure that each individual has time to speak and say what they feel they need to.
  • If you are facilitating, you can use active listening methods like summarising to help the conversation to be productive and to encourage the participants to engage (see Listening Step 8 for more on this).
  • Look for areas of agreement where individuals agree on elements of the situation, even if they have different perspectives. Do not take sides and try to encourage both sides to recognise how they better support the other in the future.
  • In the end, you want to reach a resolution where the challenges have been aired and learnt from.

Those who are able to use their teamwork skills to help others to resolve their conflicts are not only helping to increase the productivity of an organisation, but are also demonstrating to leaders of that organisation that they are able to rebuild trust and relationships in others which can support working together in the future.

What can you do to practise not creating unhelpful conflicts, and resolving conflicts if they arise?

  1. Think of a situation in your life when you have been part of or witnessed a conflict,for example, in the workplace. Think back to what happened, why it happened, the opinions of those involved and the final outcome of the situation. Was the conflict allowed to build? Was it overcome? If so, how? Did someone intervene or act to stop it building? If not, what could you have done to improve the situation?
  2. Think of a number of occasions when you have experienced or witnessed conflict between yourself and other people at work. For each one, can you recall the reason for the conflict? Try to record the perspective of each person involved. Did the conflict build or was it resolved? Did anyone intervene to minimise or resolve the conflict? What was the outcome? Can you identify anything you could have done to improve the situation?
  3. Watch a political debate on the internet or television. If you were involved in a conversation what could you say or do to help resolve a conflict developing?

Discover more about managing conflict and building your teamwork skills in the Universal Framework for Essential Skills.