Helping cross functional teams navigate conflict

High performing teams don’t avoid conflict; they manage it effectively. There are four main types of conflict that can occur on a team in your business.

  • task conflict – differing opinions on how to approach a problem or complete a project goal
  • relationship conflict – personal disagreements or hurt feelings between team members
  • process conflict – the team’s decision-making procedures, including how decisions are made and who has the final say
  • value conflict – differences in beliefs or goals.

As team leader, it’s important to identify the types of conflict that are occurring within your team so you can initiate intervention strategies, facilitate open communication, or at the very least, not get caught in the mud flinging in your business.

High performing teams succeed because they have psychological safety in a group of highly motivated individuals. High performing teams focus on success and sustainable practices.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that it’s safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other. This doesn’t mean that there’s no conflict; rather, it means that team members feel comfortable enough to speak up when there’s a problem and trust that their suggestions will be heard and respected. Progress is an endless pursuit and creating psychological safety is essential for managing conflict constructively so that it doesn’t escalate into team dysfunction and distract from project goals.

As a team leader, you know that conflict is inevitable. But did you know that there are different stages of conflict? And that each stage can hurt your team in different ways? In this blog post, we’ll explore the 5 stages of conflict and how they can impact your cross-functional team. By understanding the stages, you can take steps to mitigate the hurt and keep your team succeeding.


Usually characterized as constructive disagreement, stage 1 conflict is a hallmark of a team focused on fixing the problem at hand. Information flows openly and honestly. Team members use language that is direct, specific, and based on facts — clarifying questions are used to discern what was said.

One of the key characteristics of a high level team is their high degree of trust and mutual respect. This level of conflict is healthy and indicative of a team that values technical excellence and a commitment to continuous improvement. They typically adopt agile processes and sustainable development practices. They value early and continuous delivery and help prioritize the customer’s competitive advantage.

Team’s naturally resolve conflict at this stage because well formed cross-functional teams are aware of the team’s performance goals and high level objectives. Their leaders prioritize continuous learning and celebrate wins.

One of the frameworks I promote is scrum (which is an agile process and lightweight framework). It helps create self organizing teams and promotes early and continuous delivery. Following agile processes will help ensure that conflicts are resolved in a timely and efficient manner with improvements scheduled on a regular basis. Agile processes harness change, efficient development processes, and face to face conversation. In my years as a team leader and facilitator, I have yet to find a more effective method for building high performing teams with motivated individuals.

“If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just preserve a sense of artificial harmony.”

Patrick Lencioni

–The Five Dysfunctions of a Team


Team members start to own their perspectives about the problems. This is usually a good thing. However, it’s really easy for team members to personalize opposing perspectives and may engage in separate conversations outside the group as a whole. This is common among self organizing teams. However, when healthy joking around starts to look like personal jabs and shots, there might be a problem and team goals are at risk.

Technical excellence suffers when team members start building walls and are wary to extend their bridges to members with opposing perspectives.

Clarifying questions are used to discern why something was said vs what was said. This is an interesting among a high performing team culture if open communication is present and deeper problems can be uncovered and resolved quickly. If team members perceive that they can openly communicate with one another, then a positive team culture will develop and thrive.

If team members do not feel that open lines of conversation is present, then a negative team culture may develop. It’s important to schedule time with the team at regular intervals to support a positive team culture and ensure that ideas can be expressed safely with organizational and team goals in mind. When the team reflects on their interactions, positive cultures strengthen. Conflict is natural and can be managed by anyone on the team.

The key here is to always ask clarifying questions. They help to keep expectations open and prevent misunderstandings from occurring. When high performing team members feel that they can openly communicate with one another, they are more likely to trust one another and work together more effectively. Trust is essential for high performing teams, and clarifying questions help to build trust by ensuring that everyone is on the same page. By fostering support and trust, clarifying questions help high performing teams to thrive.

When the team reflects on their interactions, the organization wins.


Team members need to feel like they own their perspectives and that an opposing point of view is not a threat to them as a person. When members start attacking and challenging each others instead of an idea, business goals are at risk and your team is now navigating in a hostile environment.

If you’re a team leader, stopping conflict from escalating further should be your highest priority. Otherwise, employees quit because your business and its leaders fail to build a healthy culture.

Managers should get involved and lead discussions focused on fixing the problem, and not on winning. Past mistakes should not be brought up and used against others; this will only lead to power struggles and factions forming within the organization. If this happens, you’ll no longer have a sustainable development and you’ll struggle to use any agile processes harness change.

Effective communication is essential in team environments, especially when requirements are constantly changing. All team members need to be aware of the progress being made, and what needs to be done in order to achieve success. Focus on the complementary skills and conveying information that support understanding and common ground.


When team members are committed to their point of view, it can be difficult to come to a consensus. It’s important to support each team member’s ability to share their opinion and expectations for respectful debate, but when face to face conversation becomes hostile, the team’s ability to resolve conflict on their own is gone. Other teams in the organization should be made aware of the issue and instructed to steer clear or you’ll risk other organizational goals.

The most effective method for leaders in this situation is to reflect on the various points of view and focus on finding common ground among the employees. When factions within the team start to form, it is important to nip it in the bud and lead by example by initiating one on one conversations and conveying information about how the interactions being reported are impacting other people’s ability to do their job.

Factions can often be divisive and create office conflict. Ideologies, pressure from faction leaders, and recruitment of others from outside the team can all be signs that factions are forming. If left unchecked, this can lead to tension and polarization within the team or among teams. It is important to address these issues early on so that the team can reset some of their practices and revisit their working agreements. Leaders should revisit working agreements with these teams at regular intervals.


The tension in the room is palpable when employees are forced to work together in close quarters. Members find themselves physically distancing themselves from one another and raising their voices at inappropriate times. The pressure to perform is high, and dissension among employees is not tolerated. This can lead to a hostile work environment where employees are afraid to voice their opinions or offer constructive criticism.

In some cases, violence may even be imminent. In these situations, it is important to remember that employees are still people with feelings and needs. Businesses should do everything they can to avoid putting folks in this type of situation. By promoting a healthy workplace environment, businesses can ensure that employees are able to work together efficiently and productively without fear of reprisal.


Fostering healthy communication and trust between employees is essential for creating a successful work environment. It is important to establish clear expectations and guidelines for how teams should communicate. When issues arise, managers need to be prepared to step in and mediate any conflict that may arise. By doing so, teams can maintain their productivity while avoiding the risk of an all out war.

As a leader, the goal is to avoid conflict between teams by encouraging teamwork and collaboration. To do this, managers should focus on promoting a culture of respect and openness. Team members should be encouraged to openly share their ideas and solutions without fear of reprisal or being judged. Managers should also strive to create a work environment that encourages collaboration, creativity, and innovation.

When teams are equipped with the information they need and given the resources they require, they can work together effectively and efficiently towards common goals. This is a leader’s highest priority in order to promote high performing teams and avoid costly conflicts.

With proper guidance, teams can work together towards common goals without resorting to destructive tactics.

Photo Credit: Flickr


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