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Colleagues at war: How to stop internecine warfare in the office.

If you are a team leader, it is sometimes tempting to withdraw to the sanctity of your own office and drive the whole company’s sorry business forward on your own, sticking your fingers in your ears as you watch the sales team rips lumps out of accounts.

There are bound to be disagreements in any team endeavour, but it is your duty as a leader of men, no less, to bang heads together and turn a dysfunctional team into one that can work productively and in harmony. But how?

Jeanne Brett is the impressively titled DeWitt W. Buchanan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at Kellog Graduate School of Management and co-authored Getting Disputes Resolved. She must know what she is talking about and says that understanding why teams fight, how and when to get involved and how to prevent fights is a critical skill for all team leaders. “Conflict is part of working on a team and while it’s often uncomfortable, it can also be healthy.”

Team leaders mostly try to deal with disagreements as they arise, but Brett advises stopping them before they happen. She says: “Have solid conflict management procedures in place to deal with conflicts when they arise, because they will arise.” It is harder to solve disputes after they happen, than to nip them in the bud before any damage is done.

Richard Boyatzis is Professor of Organizational Behaviour, at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University and he says it is important for a team to share the same purpose, values and identity. He also says teams “should devote a certain amount of time to talking about the team itself.”

He says that instead of focusing on easier concrete issues like goals and measurements, get the group to agree on its purpose first. This should happen when the team forms and throughout its existence. Boyatzis is part of a consortium that has met fortnightly for a decade and each meeting starts by reading aloud the team’s founding principles, agreed to ten years ago, which keep them grounded and focused.

Common disputes at work could include task-related conflicts, working methods, eating habits or even seating arrangements. There are several key areas to focus on to resolve disputes:

Intervene early. If two or more colleagues are in dispute, step in as soon as possible, as once emotions have kicked in, the situation will become harder to diffuse, feelings hurt and resentment can fester. It is critical for managers to be aware of team dynamics and sense when discord is brewing.

Focus on team principles. A good way to resolve disputes that have erupted, is to refer back to something the team has, or can agree on. If norms, as a team, have not been discussed previously, now is the time to do so, not framing the discussion around the dispute, but rather, focused on the rules of engagement going forward.

Identify a shared agreement. The job of the team leader is to facilitate accord between the fighting parties. Brett says: “The key is to respect each party and the reasons behind their point of view.” Boyatzis says the way to do this is to talk everything through, but that many managers cut the dialogue short, or do not conduct talks in an inclusive way. He says: “Once the cards are on the table, you need to facilitate an outcome that takes into account both parties’ point of views.”

Compromise is not necessarily evil and the final resolution does not need to represent the lowest common denominator answer, but rather integrate both parties’ interests, perhaps by connecting the resolution back to shared purposes, values or identity, that might force them to see eye-to-eye.

Moving on. Boyatzis thinks the best way to heal rifts is to start working again as soon as possible. It might be a good idea for the manager to set the team a relatively easy task that will help them to rebuild their confidence as a team. He stresses that if someone is, or feels ostracised, the team leader should assign them an important task or solicit their opinions. When feelings have been hurt, it might be best to let the parties have a break from each other for a while and to establish the practice of regular check-ups on team progress.

Key principles


• Set up conflict management procedures before conflicts arise

• Intervene early when a fight erupts between team members

• Get the team working together again as soon as possible


• Assume the team agrees on its shared purpose, values or vision

• Let conflicts fester or go unattended

• Move on without first talking about the conflict as a team

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