Managing Conflict

 Managing Conflict


By Sal Mistry, PhD

According to the late expert Richard Hackman, only 25 percent of teams utilize effective processes such as coordination and communication, and nearly 60 to 70 percent fail to achieve their objectives in any given project or situation. The culprit? Team members consistently point to internal conflict.

  • Identity incongruity refers to the differing — or clashing — personalities, experiences and values that shape expectations. It is important to understand the extent to which incongruent personal identities drive conflicts. These kinds of disagreements are often the most difficult to solve because we perceive that values we hold deeply are under attack
  • Role incongruity is driven by situations in which role relationships between team members are unclear, or in which roles do not capitalize on member strengths. Conflict tends to intensify when members have interdependent tasks but incompatible roles or when individuals within and outside the team have conflicting goals resulting in mismatched priorities.
  • Environmental stress is another major source of conflict. Scarce resources, along with tight budgets and deadlines, are likely to cause disputes that pit team members against one another and create false competition.

While intra-office conflicts are inevitable to some degree, the good news is, they don’t have to become destructive. By keeping these five strategies in mind, team leaders and members can head off conflict before it turns nasty.


People have varying degrees of comfort engaging in conflict, so it’s critical that each team member understand his or her own preferred coping mechanisms and conflict resolution methods. Research has identified five major styles of conflict management: collaboration, competition, avoidance, accommodation and compromise. Although none of these strategies is superior, understanding the preferred “go-to” approach, along with the above conflict drivers, will help teams understand how to solve problems.


Decentering goes beyond empathy, enabling team members to step back from their own, self-centered perspective and focus on the underlying causes of the conflict. This strategy helps team members avoid reacting in angry, sarcastic or condescending tones, and focus on their own behavior rather than their opponent’s: “What did I do, or not do, to make this happen, or not happen?” This form of deep reflection creates a more precise picture of what is causing conflict and helps the team focus on the problem at hand, rather than the accompanying emotions.


Being proactive prevents significant disruptions such as delays or missed deadlines. Planning for potential conflicts or obstacles empowers team members to manage their time and allows the team to agree on communication methods and potential solutions, proactively changing roles as needed. The ability to foresee periods of work overload for each team member and to identify bottlenecks in advance is essential to preventing conflict from taking root. Proactive discussions also pay off over time because they make clear the team member contributions and value, and the benefits of each decision made. Add

Emphasis on Strengths

Teams should divide work based on strengths rather than convenience. The team should identify each member’s skills and expertise, and discuss how to balance individual strengths appropriately to optimize team performance. Such proactive discussions, if handled in a respectful manner, prevent future debates and animosity. Even better, these discussions clarify expectations and decrease the risk of passive-aggressive behavior and excuses.

The Right Questions

A best-selling book on navigating high-stakes situations, Crucial Conversations teaches that powerful dialogue begins with the questions “what” and “how,” rather than “why.” Questions like, “What would you like to see happen?” and “What does that look like for you?” help distinguish concrete needs and goals, while “why” questions tend to elicit defensive responses. Questions like, “what would it take for us to be able to move forward?” and “How do we get there?” isolate specific steps to move past the conflict. Questions like, “Are you willing to share the impact this has had on you?” and “Are you willing to hear my perspective?” move the discussion from superficial to sincere. Asking, “What ideas do you have that would meet both our needs?” is also crucial to focus on satisfying everybody as much as possible.

At some point, of course, it’s important to understand the reason the conflict occurred. Questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or, “What about this situation is most troubling to you?” or, “What’s most important to you?” are great ways to start that conversation without making the other person defensive.


These tips can exponentially increase processes and performance by teaching team members to approach and navigate conflict in a productive way. With each successful conflict resolution, team members become more confident, bringing these encouraging memories, behaviors and expectations with them to the next conflict. In the end, team members will be more willing to contribute and engage in conflict resolution, rather than closing off or lashing out.

Sal Mistry, Ph.D., teaches Management and Organizations at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.


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