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I’m a manager of a team and recently, two of my team members have not been working well together. What can I do to help resolve their conflict? Elaine Varelas provides insight

When members of a team are in a dispute, it can cause disruption not just to the team, but to the organization as well. Elaine Varelas provides insight on how to resolve conflicts between team members.

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Q: I’m a manager and I have two team members who do not work well together and it’s causing some internal issues. Is there anything I can do to mitigate the problem?

A: Conflict is a normal part of life and a normal part of work. The most difficult part is dealing with conflict professionally and recognizing what is causing the conflict and how to minimize its impact – especially on others. Often work conflicts are caused by a lack of clarity in terms of role definition, responsibilities, accountability, communication, and trust. These attributes are part of what Patrick Lencioni described as what makes a team dysfunctional in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. First, look at the individual roles to see if there are overlaps that cause confusion about who is responsible and ultimately, who is accountable for the success or failure of a specific area.

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With both individuals, bringing clarity to their roles and outlining where the responsibilities overlap, where the handoffs and communication needs to happen, and who is responsible for failure and success is a great place to start. If the conflict is not in the role, you might find that the disagreement is based on personality or style. People need to understand that you don’t need to marry everyone you work with, but you do need to find a certain level of respect for professionals in the workplace who may have a different personality or style than you.

Recognizing that the diversity of skillsets is part of what is needed for companies to be successful helps people understand why you need different types of people within your organization. For example, you might find that your finance people make decisions quantitively while your salespeople make decisions based on potential opportunities. Both of these can be correct, and senior leaders need to help people see the paradox that it’s not an either/or but a “this” and “that”.

Conflicts between these two people might be representative of the conflicts between their departments. As such, each may feel obligated to defend their people and their area of responsibility, and they may have preconceived notions about someone else wanting to take over territory, staff, budget, or other resources. Again, having the definition of current responsibilities, role, budget, etc. articulated very cleanly by the leader will minimize these issues. However, if you believe that peoples’ preconceived notions are more based on prejudice or unconscious bias, then as the leader you will need to bring that to light. You will have to ask more probing questions about bad behavior or other issues to see if there is something else underlying the conflict.

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As a senior leader, don’t anticipate that you can make everyone get along. If the people in question are in senior positions, put the responsibility on them to solve the conflict but also recognize that they may need some professional help, whether that is through your HR organization, an employee assistance program, or some kind of executive coaching. Don’t hesitate to offer support, especially if it’s occurring in areas of high value to the organization. As the leader, don’t assume one side is right and one side is wrong – take the time to probe, ask questions, and understand what is at the basis of this. Is it miscommunication? Personal tension? Historical conflict? Or some kind of conscious or unconscious bias?

Investigate individually where both people have the opportunity to describe their view of the situation and make sure that they are aware you’ll be meeting with both of them. Then meet with them together to go over things. Helping them communicate with each other in front of you will hopefully be the beginning of a fresh start and a way to end the dispute amicably. Additionally, doing this exercise will allow you to model professional behavior, as well as how to handle conflict. However, do not allow conflict between the two to spread throughout the organization. This engages other in taking sides, creating a larger hostile environment. So don’t wait to deal with this situation, or you do risk a more disastrous outcome.

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