Mediating team conflict is good, but watch out for the pitfall.

Let’s face it, tension or conflict in a team can pop its ugly head up from time to time.  The issue is what to do about it.

One of the essential responsibilities of team leaders in shaping the dynamics of a team is mediating team conflict when it arises. But mediating conflicts or prevailing tensions within a team can be challenging and fraught with pitfalls.  Very often because of diverse personalities, varying perspectives, and often high-pressure environments means team leaders feel ill-equipped to deal with the conflict.  In my time working in the field  of organisational behaviour and development I’ve come across a variety of approaches that team leaders have taken – with a range of success.

Following on from my podcast with my colleague Pippa Richardson, I pick up on some of the conversation we had regarding the pitfalls of mediating team conflict.

Abdication

Arguably, addressing team conflicts effectively is a crucial skill for any leader, but one common approach that is often taken is abdication or avoidance.  Partly, it’s governed by the team leader’s own relationship with conflict.  Some team leaders recognise that conflict exists among team members but their approach is very laissez faire and, frankly avoiding. Their view is to allow adults to resolve their issues among themselves.  The intent of providing autonomy and avoiding a paternal approach seems reasonable on the face of it.  The problem lies in the fact that, depending on the nature of the conflict, either party might feel unable to address the relationship issue and this unresolved tension can fester over time, negatively impacting of team performance and morale.  

For many team leaders not ‘wanting to go there’ avoids opening what they perceive to be a huge can of worms they feel they can’t deal with.  The passage of time means that, without any consciously bad intent, they become passively complicit by allowing the conflict to percolate.

Team leaders must understand that conflicts won’t always resolve themselves. Instead of avoiding or abdicating responsibility, leaders can take a more proactive approach to address conflicts as soon as they arise. Open and honest communication is key. Creating a safe space for dialogue is essential in addressing conflicts constructively as is encouraging team members to voice their concerns and facilitate discussions to reach a resolution.  Part of the answer in mediating is getting either party to appreciate the other’s perspective, feelings and needs.

Heavy-Handed Intervention

Of course the reverse approach can also exist.  I’ve heard several comments from some team leaders in the past suggesting that what is required is ‘knocking heads together’ in finding a swift resolution.

They resort to a heavy-handed, critical parent, intervention, trying to impose their solutions or demand that the conflicting parties resolve their differences immediately. This approach can often exacerbate tensions and lead to resistance from team members.  Unintentionally entrenching the tensions makes the work of resolving the conflict far more difficult and complicated for the team leader.  Forcing or expecting changed behaviour from team members for the good of interpersonal relations or the cohesion of the team removes agency from the team members in conflict and ignores the fact that conflict resolution is ultimately a collaborative process requiring empathy and understanding.

Rather than a directive approach, effective conflict resolution requires a facilitative approach from team leaders.  Acting as a mediator, means guiding the discussion without taking sides or imposing solutions. By facilitating the conversations – perhaps over time – the team leader can help reduce some of the resentments that may have built up over time and empower the team members to take ownership for their own solutions.  It promotes collaboration and joint problem solving which usually reduces resistance from team members.

Complexity and Entrenchment

Of course in some cases, conflicts within a team can be deeply complex, having evolved over years. Unproductive behaviours when in conflict can accrue.  Something that was a niggle or irritation once upon a time has developed with cumulative incidents into a multi-faceted monster that may be difficult to unpick as there is not one single issue, but several. Passive-aggressive or overtly aggressive behaviours multiply. Wounded feelings grow and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer.

These situations sometimes require a more comprehensive approach and professional support.  Professional mediation can help untangle complex issues and guide the team toward reconciliation. 

Mediators can offer fresh perspectives, facilitate constructive dialogues, and provide strategies using a range of techniques for long-term conflict resolution.

The challenge with this approach can sometimes be about gaining team member acceptance of the intervention by an external party.  While professional mediation brings objectivity, neutrality, and expertise to conflict resolution, gaining recognition that it might actual help can be difficult in itself.  Professional mediation can help to untangling complex issues, fostering understanding, and lead to lasting solutions, but a starting point for team leaders is to explore if team members are open to the process.

Psychological safety

Creating an environment where people feel they can express themselves without fear of retribution is, of course, a pre-emptive approach to the possibility of affective conflict in teams. Team leaders who intentionally foster safe environments promote open communication and risk taking, which has the effect of reducing the likelihood of conflicts escalating.

The challenge here is around the time and consistent effort required. Some team members may still hesitate to speak up due to past experiences or deeply ingrained workplace culture, but the payback in the long run is definitely worth it.  One of the positive side effects of continuing to both role model and develop psychological safety in teams almost feels counter intuitive.  Psychological safety actually promotes more conflict, but it is based on an exchange of differing ideas and viewpoints – cognitive conflict – as opposed to inter-personal clashes – affective conflict.

Lack of Reward

Finally, the effort put into resolving conflicts must be rewarded in some way, usually psychologically. Without a sense of reward, team members may not see the value in changing their behaviours or perspectives.  

Small wins are important and team leaders should recognise and celebrate progress made in conflict resolution, acknowledging the efforts of team members in addressing and resolving their conflicts. Reinforcing feedback recognising  the efforts made and the change behaviours.  This creates a sense of achievement and supports the importance of conflict resolution within the team.

Great team leaders spot early signs of tensions in the team way before they fester into something really big and more difficult to deal with.  They are courageous in having the conversations needed to mediate the conflict among team members and don’t avoid their necessary role. They are mindful of their own biases in intervening and focus on behaviours and outcomes rather than personalities.  They listen deeply to differing perspectives with empathy and objectivity, and recognise the power of providing reinforcing feedback for incremental change.

Effective conflict mediation is a skill that can transform a team’s dynamics and productivity. While various approaches can be applied, the success of each approach depends on the specific context of the conflict and the willingness of team leaders to adapt and learn. Open communication, facilitative leadership, mediation skills, external mediation where appropriate, and promoting psychological safety are all valuable tools in a team leader’s conflict resolution toolkit.

The challenges and pitfalls associated with conflict mediation are real, but the benefits of addressing conflicts constructively are even more significant. By embracing these approaches and understanding when to use them, team leaders can create cohesive, high-performing teams that thrive in a culture of open communication and trust.

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