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Leading Through Team Conflict: Containing the Negative

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

In my last post I explored how team conflict might actually be a positive and productive process. Harmful or negative team conflict, however, requires intentional action on the part of a leader to keep it from corroding the team dynamic and having lasting effects. Carole Townsend cites M. Nelson’s five approaches for addressing negative team conflicts: Direct Approach, Bargaining, De-emphasis, Retreat, and Enforcement.  Which approach you use should depends on the nature of the problem.

Some team conflicts can be damaging, but good leadership can help avoid escalation and contain negative effects.
Some team conflicts can be damaging, but good leadership can help avoid escalation and contain negative effects.

A direct approach is about getting the problem out in the open, confronting your team with it, and though it can be difficult it is often an advisable choice. By stepping into your role as the leader and addressing the team, you can also take the opportunity to force a conflict which may have become affective and personal back into language that is task-oriented and draws attention back to what is important in the workplace. You may be able to reset the tone and implicitly help change how your employees see it, too, potentially creating the space for an appropriate level of resolution.

Bargaining can help to usher in a compromise between diverging viewpoints, and involves facilitating a back and forth to help the parties identify what they can each cede in order to resolve the tension. De-emphasis involves searching out areas of agreement and making those the focal point as a way of moving past conflict, but with this one you must beware of burying toxic unresolved elements that will come back and bite you all later. Retreat should be used when there isn’t really a problem to be solved. Sometimes people have bad days and it comes out in the workplace – having everyone take a little distance until it blows over is sometimes better than stirring up feelings and letting them create a new issue. Enforcement, simply laying down rules and declaring the situation moot, should be used as a last resort, though as leaders with formal authority it sometimes seems like the easiest option. It can leave hard feelings that last and disrupt the sense of unity and trust on a team in the long term. As Townsend points out, “If enforcement has to be used on an individual, it may be best for that person to find another team.”

Even Better? Get ahead

In the end, if you’re reading this you’re already taking one of the most effective strategies for dealing with team conflict: getting ahead of it, educating yourself, and planning. Remember from my earlier post’s reference to Jennifer Whitt that you can expect certain kinds of conflict to come up on your team, depending on the stage of group development or project progress. So think ahead about what might come up, and be prepared to channel it into productivity or close off roads you already know you don’t want to go down. By putting conflict on your strategic map of priorities as a leader, you’re already getting ahead on cultivating the productive rewards of teams in the workplace.
And for those conflicts that are too tough for you to manage as an office insider – there’s always a mediator. We often think of mediation as something to use in two-party disputes like divorces or civil suits, but come back next week to learn about how mediation with team conflicts can reduce pesky friction and help your workplace run smoothly and efficiently.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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