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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Cross-functional or dysfunctional? Resolving team conflicts

Team resentments and conflict can be ingrained into multiple aspects of business, and undoing years or even decades of teams at odds will take time.

Cross-functional or dysfunctional? Resolving team conflicts
[Photo credits: deagreez / Adobe Stock]

Not everyone in the workplace is going to get along. There are always going to be differences between people and groups, and it’s inevitable that small disagreements will arise.

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When departments and teams start to have internal conflict, however, your business can grind to a halt. Think about the constant struggle between the sales team and the account team when it comes to setting client expectations, or the sales to marketing handoff process.

Cross-functional teams are important to the success of your business, so knowing the best ways to deal with conflict is an important skill for all managers and business leaders.

WHY DOES CONFLICT OCCUR?

Leaders often question why conflict between teams is happening in the first place. After all, don’t all teams ultimately have the same goals of effectively improving the business and bringing in more revenue? While this might be true on a surface level, reality is a little more complicated.

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Conflict in the workplace can stem from a number of sources, including:

• Differences in opinion.

• Misunderstandings and poor communication.

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• Process, product, or service changes.

• Personality or management style clashes.

• Increased workloads or work stress.

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When conflict occurs between teams, not just individuals, it can almost feel like a sports rivalry. Teams go into meetings prepared for a battle and build collective resentments against other departments. Internal conflicts between teams can be difficult to undo once they’ve developed, so addressing the problem promptly is key.

WHEN DOES CONFLICT BECOME UNPRODUCTIVE?

A small amount of conflict is normal and expected in business. Not everyone is going to agree on everything, and it’s actually healthy for teams to have differing options. If all teams are in agreement, you might find yourself in an echo chamber where improvements and new ideas aren’t discussed. There comes a point, however, when conflict crosses the line and becomes unproductive.

There are a few different signs that conflict might be reaching a boiling point. The first and most obvious is decreases in productivity. When your teams aren’t performing well, it could be due to breakdowns in communication and a lack of cooperation.

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Another indicator of unhealthy conflict is a high turnover rate or excessive absenteeism. When a workplace culture is stressful and full of negative feelings between teams, some employees will choose to leave or try to limit their time in the office.

Unhappy employees might also start to bring their conflict up the ranks to HR or to team managers. If there is an increase in complaints or reports from one team to another, it’s a clear sign that teams are in conflict.

The clearest indicator, however, would be dysfunctional meetings and interactions between employees. When meetings are tense, unproductive, or full of odd comments and short, unhelpful answers, you can see team conflict playing out in front of your eyes.

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HOW TO HELP TEAMS THROUGH CONFLICT

As a business leader, it’s your job to identify conflict in your organization and help your teams work through it to become productive and orient themselves around what is best for the company. Of course, this is easier said than done. Here are a few strategies to diffuse conflict and realign employees.

• Take proactive steps.

Some managers or business leaders believe that the best course of action is to ignore conflict and wait for it to blow over organically. However, this approach can lead to deep-set resentment between teams, ineffective processes, and even doubts about your management qualities.

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In order to address conflict and bring your teams back together, you have to be proactive and address conflict as soon as it arises. This will help your teams avoid long-term resentment and encourage your employees to view you as a leader.

• Be impartial.

When you address conflict with preconceived notions, or when you go in already leaning to one side or the other, you can deepen the bitterness between your departments since one team will feel like they haven’t been heard. Strive to be a neutral arbiter and allow teams to feel like they are going into conflict resolution on even ground.

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• Speak to teams individually and together.

In order to mediate conflict, you’ll need to first gather each team’s side of the story. Set up calls with team leaders and employees to understand their side of the conflict. Once you’ve gathered each side’s take on the reasons behind the conflict, bring them together and present your solutions.

Let your teams talk to each other in a safe environment where they can present their issues and frustrations without it getting out of hand. Direct the conversation and supply answers and alternatives to problems to bring the conflict to an end.

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• Patience, patience, patience.

Not all conflicts will be resolved in a single meeting. Team resentments and conflict can be ingrained into multiple aspects of business, and undoing years or even decades of teams at odds will take time. Be patient and understand that conflict resolution is an ever-evolving process.

Conflict within a business is unavoidable. People have different working and management styles, opinions, goals, and methods to achieve those goals that aren’t always going to align with other departments. Bringing your teams together is an important job for business leaders who want to help their organizations grow and be successful.

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Misty Larkins is the President of Relevance, a growth marketing agency specializing in helping companies own their industries online. 

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