Three Reasons Why Conflict Escalates in Your Team

Posted by Kristin Arnold on September 1, 2015

Conflict is a normal and necessary part of teams coming together to make decisions.  It’s a messy process of discovering what each other knows and creating a holistic, 3-D understanding of what’s important, what’s going on, and what we want the future to be.

shutterstock_277372325Conflict emerges during a robust conversation among people who respect each other. It is managed constructively to generate light about the issue – and not “heat.”

In my experience as a professional meeting facilitator, there are three reasons why conflict escalates into a heated discussion:

  1. Disagree on the Core Issue.  What’s the problem you are trying to solve; the opportunity you are trying to leverage?  Why is this so important?  Why are we investing our time together discussing this issue?  In facilitator parlance, we call this “the common ground.”  Once everyone on the team agrees what the common ground is, you can move forward.  Without it, you’ll be mired in conflict.  Even if you do achieve a superficial agreement, it probably won’t last because there is no foundation holding the agreements together.
  2. Rooted to a Position.  We all come to the table with some preconceived notion about what the “right” course of action is.  Great team players realize this is just a starting point for more robust conversation.  They are willing to “let go” of their precious idea and build a collaborative solution.  Others, unfortunately, are so enamored with their great idea that they won’t let it go.  They keep beating their drum, trying to convince others that their idea is the best – which is a real turn off to teamwork!  I’ve seen an executive who bludgeoned his way to achieve “team commitment” when all he really got was compliance (if not a dose of sabotage!) from the team in the execution of that idea.
  3. Non Stating Implicit Values.  Once we have all the ideas on the table, we need to evaluate them as a team. This evaluation is typically based on some explicit criteria and implied values.  For example, if the team is trying to buy a car, there are some explicit criteria (cost, mileage, features etc.) that can be objectively discussed.  Yet, there are also some implicit assumptions that may not be so readily apparent.  Perhaps it’s important to buy from a local manufacturer?  Or consider the effect on the environment?  Or maybe one team member just has an anathema to cars?  Until these considerations are discussed, the team might won’t achieve a true consensus where everyone can live with and support  the idea.

Next time you find conflict in your team, look at it as an opportunity to discuss the issues and build a sustainable agreement.  Make sure you have agreed on the common ground, discussed all the possibilities to achieve the desired result, and evaluated those possibilities with both the explicit criteria AND the implicit assumptions and values that we hold dear.




Kristin Arnold is a professional meeting facilitator and international speaker who is passionate about teamwork. The Extraordinary Team’s approach to building high performance teams combines consulting, coaching, training and process facilitation within the context of real working issues. You can read more of her work in one of her books.

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