Leading Rwanda: Resolving conflict within teams

Conflict within teams is inevitable and needs to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. / File.

This is the fourth in a series of special columns on how both experienced and new leaders can build and maintain trust within their teams as the professional world slowly moves out of crisis and uncertainty towards a new normal.

Even with the best team charter and agreements in the world, human beings are flawed and there will always be internally generated miscommunication, misunderstandings, rivalries, competition and jealousies, which might well flare up into open conflict.


As the Zen priest and teacher, Diane Musho Hamilton, says: “Rather than relying on a thin, idealised hope that we will all one day just get along, we can approach conflict resolution as an art form that we are privileged to develop and hone.”


So the challenge for an effective team leader is to anticipate such conflict before it happens – if possible - and deal with it quickly and efficiently if and when it does come about.


Firstly, leaders may want to add some specific new team agreements to the general ones discussed in the previous column on July 30, especially if they inherit or fear substantial tension or conflict within their team.

Some examples are:

Collegiality – Team members can sometimes spend more time with each other each week than they do with their loved ones at home. It certainly helps if they can see each other as allies and friends (without being inappropriate, of course) and if they actually like their leaders as human beings. This is not mandatory though. What is required is that they all give each other the benefit of the doubt and find a way respect and value each other as co-workers.

Perception is Reality – Everyone has their own biased lens on life, work and other people. It is part of the human condition. So we all need to accept that everyone’s individual perception is their reality (even if it’s not your reality) and suspend any judgment of others’ words or deeds unless they are harmful in some way.

Agree to Disagree Agreeably – In reality, these differing perceptions - along with unique personalities, hard-held values and firm beliefs – often lead to disagreements, which cannot always be resolved. As such, the protagonists may just have to openly acknowledge these gaps and carry on with the tasks at hand.

What happens if and when conflict does break out within a work team? What can a leader do?

Probably, the most famous global model for handling conflict is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument that was developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the USA nearly 50 years ago and is still widely used today.

This model identifies two dimensions when choosing a course of action in a conflict situation: Assertiveness (or Task) is the degree to which you try to satisfy your own needs. Cooperativeness (or Relationship) is the degree to which you try to meet other people’s needs.

1. Competing (high task and low relationship)

Competing is all about achieving results above all else. This can be very beneficial when something is urgent or there is an emergency. If it is taken too far though, it can damage relationships and create ill will.

2.  Avoiding (low on relationship and low on task)

When avoiding, people tend to ignore or deny that issues exist or just decide that any differences may be too minor or too great to resolve at this time. They may also fear that any action might damage relationships or create even greater problems. The downside is that important problems could be allowed to fester and grow and may be more difficult to deal with later.

3. Accommodating (high on relationship and low on task)

Accommodating is the ultimate subordination of one’s own aims or interests to benefit others in terms of getting things done. This noble sacrifice may maintain relationships, avoid disharmony and create goodwill for potentially bigger battles in the future. Unfortunately, it may also undermine the accommodator’s credibility and lead to others taking advantage and abusing this apparent submissiveness.

4. Compromising (medium on both relationship and task)

The aim of Compromising is to allow everyone to achieve their basic goals and maintain good relationships at the same time. This can help preserve goodwill and harmony in the short term but, as with accommodating, it may stoke resentment and lead to tension and conflict later.

5. Collaborating (high on both task and relationship)

In theory, Collaborating should be the ultimate approach to differences within a team: everyone’s needs are met and relationships are actually enhanced in a both assertive and cooperative solution. Unfortunately, this can take a long time to negotiate and achieve and may just not be worth it if it is only a small issue or there is time pressure.

Each conflict mode clearly has its time and place to be effective and to help this model come to life for each reader, please think of a real or potential conflict at work and then decide which of these five options might be the most appropriate way of handling it right now.

The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer jeremy@jeremysolomons.com


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