Majority of Team Conflicts

Harvard Business Review-4 Triggers Cause the Majority of Team Conflicts

What’s the one thing you fret about most as a new manager? If you said, “dealing with conflict on my team,” we’re not surprised.

Conflict management is one of the biggest fears held by new managers, and for good reason. In the UK, around 38% of employees experience interpersonal conflict per year, and in the U.S., employees spend almost three hours involved in conflict every week. Added up, conflict can consume up to 40% of a manager’s time. Plus, since the pandemic began, more people are working in remote and hybrid work environments that make it harder to spot and avoid conflict when it happens.

We’re not saying conflict is always bad. Its absence can lead to complacency and “groupthink.” When people are comfortable disagreeing, friction can inspire breakthrough ideas. Further, talking about our differences teaches us what our colleagues care about and how they prefer to work, improving relationships and communication on teams.

That said, managing conflict is a skill, and one that many leaders are never taught. When it’s not handled well, conflict can wreak havoc on your team and even harm your managerial reputation. As a new leader, how can you mitigate conflict before it gets out of hand, or deal with it when it does?

To answer figure this out, we surveyed more than 1,000 first-time managers and their direct reports at 76 companies around the world. Across the board, we found that identifying the root cause, or trigger, of a stressful situation can mitigate conflict before it even begins. We concluded that four triggers cause the majority (91%) of conflict within organizations: communication differences (39%), opaque performance standards (14%), unreasonable time constraints (16%), and unclear expectations (22%).

Based on our research and previous experience advising companies on compassionate leadership, we devised four strategies to help managers combat each situation. Eighty-seven percent of the managers who participated in our survey and took our advice reported positive outcomes. In your new role, we believe you can alleviate around nine in every 10 conflicts on your team if you give these a try:

1) Establish clear channels of communication.
Since remote work has entered our lives, our communication has been peppered with quick messages and replies, whether via email, text, or chat platforms, like Slack and Teams. This leaves room for a lot of misinterpretation. Answering “yes” to a series of questions on Slack, for instance, may not actually clarify what’s being approved or agreed upon. Responding with an “OK” when asked if you can review a document doesn’t consider where the document can be found or when the edits need to be returned.

Digital communication has a large margin of error, especially when you’re not interacting in real time. Our research found that remote teams that rely mostly on emails and chats are more susceptible to conflict, as clear communication often relies on non-verbal cues, most of which can’t be translated succinctly into words. In addition, picking the wrong communication tool can create confusion, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings, according to 95% of our respondents.

Remember, communication isn’t key — comprehension is! Sensitive, personal, or more nuanced messages are better delivered in person or on a video call, as opposed to email or Slack.

Pro tips:

If you’re sharing non-sensitive information that doesn’t require a response, use email. Before hitting send, ask yourself if the recipient might have outstanding questions after reading your message, or if your tone might lead the recipient to misconstrue your words.
If you’re looking for a response in real time, use Slack or just pick up the phone and call.
If you’re facing a situation rife with misinformation, discussing a sensitive topic, delivering bad news, or having a serious or contentious debate, a video call or in-person meeting is best. Seeing the other person will allow you to read their body language, gauge their temperament, and have a more effective back-and-forth.

2) Be transparent about performance expectations.
One major mistake we saw first-time managers make was quantifying and tracking absolutely everything their team members did to measure performance. This was typically due to a lack of experience, or not knowing what the most important things to track were and how to weigh them. Come appraisal day, many of their direct reports were taken by surprise. Their team members found it difficult to understand how their work was being interpreted, which tasks they were supposed to prioritize, and which tasks were not being measured at all.

When managers leave standards entirely open to interpretation, such as what “good” versus “just okay” looks like, they negatively impact interpersonal relationships on their teams and undermine performance. You can avoid this problem by taking some time to identify your most important performance standards and clearly communicate them to your team.

How can you identify what’s most important?

First, think about your company’s larger mission and the work your team does to help them accomplish it. Given this information, ask yourself: What skills, goals, or outcomes most strongly correlate with what my team is supposed to deliver?

Next, we recommend using a tool like Trello or Asana to help your team members track their tasks. This will allow people to design plans, collaborate on projects, organize workflows, and track progress in a visual, productive, and rewarding way. Everyone will have a transparent overview of who is doing what, leaving less room for errors around measurement and reward.

Finally, set clear, non-ambiguous standards around how each person’s performance is being measured. Based on your company’s goals, and the projects that are contributing to them, what does each person need to accomplish? Engage in a dialogue and be open and honest. Talk to your team members about your expectations, and work together to agree on a few realistic goals — something that 84% of managers found most effective.

For example, let’s say you’re leading a team of project managers. Two helpful performance measures might be earned value (the value of work completed within a specific period of time in relation to the project’s budget), or schedule variance (the budgeted cost of work performed minus the budgeted cost of work scheduled).

Pro tip: When setting goals, begin by writing down the qualities of a satisfactory performance. Then move up to what “above satisfactory” looks like, and finally what constitutes “below satisfactory.” Use phrases like this:

An employee demonstrates a satisfactory performance when…
An employee demonstrates an above satisfactory performance when…
An employee demonstrates a below satisfactory performance when…

3) Manage time expectations.
Workplace conflict can occur when team members are misaligned on timing or deadlines. We found that this often occurs when peers are collaborating on a project, and one coworker misinterprets the amount of time it will take their partner to complete a task. Consequently, they may expect more of each other than reasonable, contributing to 16% of overall organizational conflict.

For example, you may expect your team member to send out a weekly report within two hours, but you may not take into account that they’re also preparing a presentation for a forthcoming offsite, working on an ad campaign, and managing a new product launch that’s four days away.

The good news? This is easily solved.

Based on our findings, one useful strategy is to encourage your team members to track their hours and how they spend their days at work. Apps like Clockify, or even a simple Excel sheet, will work. Time tracking helps people measure how long each task is actually taking them, rather than making assumptions. If your team members are open to sharing their trackers, this is yet another way to create transparency around who’s working on what — which can be eye-opening for those collaborating on multiple projects.

Pro tip: Build time into your weekly schedule to review your team’s trackers and identify opportunities for improvement. Are there tasks they’re doing repeatedly that can be made more efficient? Are they spending too much time on ad-hoc requests that throw their schedules off balance? How can you improve their work-life balance and workload distribution?

Doing this can also help you set longer-term goals and create work plans that serve everyone. Eventually, you’ll learn how to allocate reasonable time constraints for future projects, a skill regarded as paramount by 73% of the most effective managers we surveyed.

4) Clarify task and role expectations.
These expectations need to be transparent and mutually accepted. When everyone assumes that someone else is responsible for completing a task, balls are inevitably dropped, leading to finger-pointing, blame, and missed deadlines — the combination of which contributes 22% to overall organizational conflict.

We recommend creating a short guide that lays out the expectations you have of your team members, their roles, and assigned tasks, especially on projects that involve multiple people. Eighty-eight percent of the managers we considered most effective did this.

Your guide could include instructions on “how tasks are assigned,” “how we communicate with each other,” or “how all customer feedback gets logged and where,” to keep people on track and remove the guess work.

Pro tip: Keep it simple and follow this rule: edit, don’t create. Ask your team what they expect of themselves and you. Then use their feedback as the starting point. You can always influence or contribute to their plan at a later stage.

Remember, not all conflict is bad; only the ones that aren’t managed well. As a new manager, you’re already juggling a lot. Take “unproductive conflict” off your plate by using the above strategies to stop it before it begins.