How to Resolve Conflicts in a Collaborative Teams

Everyone has a tongue and a mind, which means people have an opinion about "business" and do not mind speaking their opinion about said business. And when this occurs, conflict is inevitable. With today's global environment and the need for collaborative teams to tackle myriad problems and issues, and then reach strong, consensus decisions, leaders must be adept at conflict resolution; because it's not a matter of if or when conflict will arise, but the fact that it will arise. With that said, leadership must be ready to quickly resolve the issue and keep the group moving forward, toward their goals.

Collaborative groups usually are inter-organizational and are created from multiple departments to address multiple tough issues. Add to this mix the issues of resources coming from various areas within, and outside, the organization and various individuals' perceptions of unequal power and resources within the newly formed group. Toss another time bomb of politics and a leader finds he has a gold mine of talent, knowledge, skills, and capabilities, entangled with a short fuse for collisions in interests, struggles, clashes, and outright battles.

Generally speaking, conflicts fall into four general types: intrapersonal – conflict a person has with themselves, such as a moral issue or tough decision; interpersonal – clashing between two or more people – siblings, co-workers, or friends disagreeing over something, and sometimes nothing, but the fact that they disagree; intragroup – differences of opinion between individuals within a group, club, or organization; intergroup – a conflict between groups – an example could be two culture clubs arguing over who has access to the main stage during a public cultural event.

The conflicts are inevitable, but what can't be managed is the damage produced from the conflicts. Conflicts are not bad things, as long as they are resolved in a professional manner and promote growth, instead of animosity. If the disagreement is not properly managed, you end up with the Hatfields and McCoys. These two families, who resided on the Kentucky and West Virginia borders in the late 1800s, started a feud over what historians now believe was the stealing of a hog. There were other preceding events that soured the two families' relationship prior to the hog being stolen, but the swiped swine set the stage for the struggle. And the infamous feud, which started with the stolen porker accusation in 1878, did not end until a judge sentenced many participants to life in the pokey in 1890. One individual was hanged. The moral of the true story and the lesson to be learned is: No one really wins if a conflict is allowed to fester – especially an organization. The earlier a conflict is settled, the better everyone will be. With that said, collaborative leaders must learn to be conflict squelchers.

The Truth About Conflicts

  • Conflicts are inevitable and natural within a group.

  • Each person's viewpoint is neither right, nor wrong.

  • You cannot control a person's feelings, beliefs, opinion, or behavior; you can only attempt to influence it.

  • There are many ways to handle conflict.

  • People need to feel in control and desire to be treated fairly and with respect.

Within collaboration groups, there is complexity – differences of perceptions, opinions, interests, and -- at times -- multiple parties or teams within a group. There are times when an individual's concerns or self-interest can gain momentum within a group and create conflicts. It's inevitable. At times their interests are political or social in nature, and their effect has a broader range than just within the group. When the conflict occurs, and you are the recipient of someone's nasty side, you might feel angry, hurt, misunderstood -- or you could possibly keep asking yourself, "Why me? What did I do?"

Conflict heat usually rises when:

  • Those within the group who are not affected begin to take sides

  • One side begins to feel threatened by the other

  • One side feels there is nothing to lose by arguing, or doesn't feel vested to maintain the relationship

  • Needs are not met and neither side will be the first to make any concessions

  • Frustration, anger, resentment, and irritation begin to be acted upon by participants

Conflict usually can be settled, and the proverbial bucket of cold water tossed on the hot heads, when the involved parties are convinced to look at the issue and not at what the other person is saying. It also helps to get both parties to stop the antics and frankly say what is on their mind about the issue, and not direct any derogatory comments to the other party. Have the two parties take turns openly discussing their needs, concerns, and issues -- and have them acknowledged by the group.

Conflicts escalate as an individual's emotional temperature rises and can get out of hand quickly if not dealt with immediately, sufficiently, and in a fair manner. Negotiating rules that are to be followed by the group helps alleviate many conflicts down the road as the group works together and begins to discuss the tough and controversial issues.

Public organizations have the added responsibility to serve citizens, and this responsibility brings about a complete new arena for disagreements. Conflicts can arise from the perception the group is hiding details; a lack of transparency, or accountability are problems that may be voiced by the public. With these extra areas for possible conflict, the group leader must determine the best approach to keeping the public informed as they collaborate on their issues to try and reach a consensus decision that will best help the organization and its citizens.

Conflict mien

The Negative Pole

  • Negative feelings can multiply between the various participants if the conflict is not quickly resolved.

  • Conflict can escalate to the point of zero communication between affected parties, setting bad paradigms for future endeavors.

  • Arguments have no positive outcome, when poorly handled, and complete restoration is neglected.

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Collaboration Skills course?

On the Positive Side

  • Both sides are forced to seek a solution to the dilemma.

  • Digging deep for an answer can uncover new information and new models to follow in future endeavors.

  • Working together can produce a united and close-knit group.

  • The passion to both oppose, and go toe-to-toe, against the opposition to find a better solution shows an interest, concern, deportment, and commitment to preserve the relationship.

Conflicting Styles of Managing Disagreements

The Regulatory

This form of "controlling" the conflict is by utilizing the management style of "driving a hard bargain." This style of conflict management uses domination as a control mechanism to keep opposing viewpoints at bay. This individual ensures their personal concerns are kept safe at the expense of another's interests.

A leader who uses this style of conflict suppression does not ask about opposing opinions and usually stifles consensus decisions, since his thought process is, "My way or the highway." Intimidation keeps people from admitting to conflicts or opposing viewpoints and hinders the free flow of information thus rendering a collaborative group hand-tied and virtually useless. This pretty much is a last resort style of conflict management.


The cooperative manager handles conflict through negotiation and generally believes it is okay to disagree, as long as everyone speaks their opinion and listens politely to the other point of view. The style is a great tool when seeking resolutions that address both sides of the coin. This type of solution can be time consuming and isn't for all conflicting situations, such as minor disagreements.


This manages to give both something, but also both lose something in the process. This is where leadership decides to split the difference. This is the child's game of, "One for me, one for you." What you end up with is both sides being half-way satisfied and having called a truce or cease-fire. You're left with the likes of a North and South Korea featuring a Demilitarized Zone – an area both sides have agreed to not talk about for the sake of not arguing. A true solution is not gained, so this style is not the best alternative for strong disagreements over major points; but it is great for minor glitches that occur when discussing hot issues.


The saying, "Leave well enough alone," is the best example of the averting management style of conflict. This is where an individual avoids confrontation at all cost. This style is positively the best when both sides are truly hot-headed and need to cool down before any resolution can be discussed. It's also good to use when the argument is a complete non-issue and irrelevant to the reason the group is meeting.

Grabbing the Tiger by the Tail – Getting a Grip on Conflict

Okay, you now know the various styles of managing conflict and hopefully you have run a few scenarios through your mind and determined the best course of action for each; so now it's time to beef up the communication skills – to sharpen the knife, so it will cut through the proverbial hot air without doing any serious damage. One of the best tools in the arsenal for conflict management is active listening. For listening to take place, the following list of communication potholes must be avoided:

  • Demanding someone stop doing something

  • Being aggressive

  • Lecturing or practicing your sermon skills

  • Being judgmental

  • Giving advice when it is not wanted, or offering unsolicited solutions

  • Speaking your mind and giving your opinion about the situation

Now that the potholes have been discovered, it's time to see what can be done to fill them in so that smooth communication can be achieved:

  • Be open-minded and ready for anything – after all, the argument has happened because people are passionate about the issue.

  • With the open mind, accept the various opinions as valid statements.

  • Do not pick sides, but treat everyone as equals.

  • Empathize and treat everyone with dignity and courtesy.

  • Use your active listening skills.

Calming the Storm – the Background Info Needed to Keep the Peace

The various styles of managing conflict have been addressed. With those styles in mind, there are other strategies that can be put in place to keep the conflicting storms from raging out of control. Needless to say, some of these tactics will not work with the Regulatory style, but that conflict management style only should be used in special cases, since it does not actually resolve the conflict and, in the long run, can exacerbate it.

These simple steps can head off, or calm, the conflict and allow some form of resolution to take place. To prepare and be ready for conflict resolution, the leader should:

  • Establish rules for conflict resolution prior to any discussions taking place.

  • Once a disagreement has risen to the surface, determine the actual subject of the conflict and its range of ramifications.

  • Keep everything polite and ensure that good, honest, and respectful relationships are priority one; and, as much as possible, keep both sides calm and build mutual respect among everyone involved, even before there is any conflict.

  • Realize people discuss positions and argue for better "positions" in a conflict, but, in truth, what they are after is an understanding of their interests or concerns; so keep these at the forefront of all discussions to, once again, alleviate any hard feelings and miscommunication.

  • Keep all comments positive, and allow all parties to have their say in equal amounts of time, when discussing an issue with opposing viewpoints.

  • Do not let the "difficult" person become the problem, but realize there is a real issue behind the behavior; so separate the issue from the person to preserve the co-worker's integrity and ability to work with the group.

If conflict does occur:

  • Actively listen to the concerns to grasp the issues being presented in the conflict.

  • Listen before speaking, and only speak after listening.

  • Set out the facts and discuss any assumptions, underlying suspicions that were hinted at, and, if necessary, any values before discussing any type of agreement or solution.

  • Select the best alternatives to reach an agreement together, and do not force an agreement as a dictator, unless the only solution to the issue dictates such a case.

  • Be realistic in coming to any suggested solution, and make sure it is specific in nature and workable for everyone concerned.

  • Ensure those with the conflict within the group have the authority to negotiate and enforce any decisions made.

  • Ensure all the necessary affected participants are aware of said conflict, and the decision reached.

The drawback to conflicts is if they are not handled quickly, professionally, fairly, and with a workable agreement in mind, then the organization suffers and the argument can turn the institute into a feudal battleground. Conflicting goals immediately will turn into personal vendettas, and nothing will be accomplished. People's talents will go unused and the organization's services, products, and customers will suffer the consequences. This type of negativity is tough to overcome without cleaning house, and the organization starting over. The best thing to do when controversy rears its ugly head, is to quickly cut it off before it's allowed to take any control. Be aggressive. Be positive. But be polite and perform your mediating duties.