5.5 Conflict Management Strategies for Groups and Teams

Conflict in Groups and Teams

Remember that a complete lack of conflict in a group is a bad sign, as it indicates either a lack of activity or a lack of commitment on the part of the members (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Conflict, when properly handled, can lead a group to have a better understanding of the issues they face. For example, substantive conflict brings voice to alternative perspectives that may not have been heard otherwise. Additionally, when people view conflict as healthy, necessary, and productive, they can enter into a conflict episode with an open mind and an aim to learn something. This is especially true when those who initiate substantive conflict are able to share and defend their views in a competent and civil manner. Group cohesion can also increase as a result of well-managed conflict. Occasional experiences of tension and unrest followed by resolutions makes groups feel like they have accomplished something, which can lead them to not dread conflict and give them the confidence to more productively deal with it the next time.

Conflict that goes on for too long or is poorly handled can lead to decreased cohesiveness. Group members who try to avoid a conflict can still feel anger or frustration when the conflict drags on. Members who consistently take task-oriented conflict personally and escalate procedural or substantive conflict to interpersonal conflict are especially unpopular with other group members. Mishandled or chronic conflict can eventually lead to the destruction of a group or to a loss in members as people weigh the costs and rewards of membership (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Hopefully a skilled leader or other group members can take on conflict resolution roles in order to prevent these disadvantages of conflict.

Primary and Secondary Tensions

Relevant to this topic is distinguishing between the primary and secondary tensions that emerge in every group (Bormann & Borman, 1988). When the group first comes together, members experience primary tension, which is tension based on uncertainty that is a natural part of initial interactions. It is only after group members begin to “break the ice” and get to know each other that the tension can be addressed and group members can proceed with the forming stage of group development. Small talk and politeness help group members manage primary tensions, and there is a relatively high threshold for these conflicts because we have all had experiences with such uncertainty when meeting people for the first time and many of us are optimistic that a little time and effort will allow us to get through the tensions. Since some people are more comfortable initiating conversation than others, it’s important for more extroverted group members to include less talkative members. Intentionally or unintentionally excluding people during the negotiation of primary tensions can lead to unexpected secondary tensions later on. During this stage people are also less direct in their communication, using more hedges and vague language than they will later in the group process. The indirect communication and small talk that characterize this part of group development aren’t a waste of time, as they help manage primary tensions and lay the foundation for future interactions that may involve more substantive conflict.

Secondary tension emerges after groups have passed the forming stage of group development and begin to have conflict over member roles, differing ideas, and personality conflicts. These tensions are typically evidenced by less reserved and less polite behavior than primary tensions. People also have a lower tolerance threshold for secondary tensions, because rather than being an expected part of initial interaction, these conflicts can be more negative and interfere with the group’s task performance. Secondary tensions are inevitable and shouldn’t be feared or eliminated. It’s not the presence or absence of secondary tension that makes a group successful or not; it’s how it handles the tensions when they emerge. A certain level of secondary tension is tolerable, not distracting, and can actually enhance group performance and avoid groupthink. When secondary tensions rise above the tolerance threshold and become distracting, they should be released through direct means such as diplomatic confrontation or indirect means such as appropriate humor or taking a break. While primary tensions eventually disappear (at least until a new member arrives), secondary tensions will come and go and may persist for longer periods of time. For that reason, we will now turn to a discussion of how to prevent and manage conflict in group interaction.

Preventing Conflict in Groups

As well as being able to handle conflict when it arises, teams need to develop ways of preventing conflict from becoming damaging. Team members can learn skills and behavior to help this. Here are some of the key ones to work on:

  • Dealing with conflict immediately – avoid the temptation to ignore it.
  • Being open – if people have issues, they need to be expressed immediately and not allowed to fester.
  • Practicing clear communication – articulate thoughts and ideas clearly.
  • Practicing active listening – paraphrasing, clarifying, questioning.
  • Practicing identifying assumptions – asking yourself “why” on a regular basis.
  • Not letting conflict get personal – stick to facts and issues, not personalities.
  • Focusing on actionable solutions – don’t belabor what can’t be changed.
  • Encouraging different points of view – insist on honest dialogue and expressing feelings.
  • Not looking for blame – encourage ownership of the problem and solution.
  • Demonstrating respect – if the situation escalates, take a break and wait for emotions to subside.
  • Keeping team issues within the team – talking outside allows conflict to build and fester, without being dealt with directly.

Managing Conflict in Groups

When conflict does arise, here are some techniques for managing conflict in group interactions:

  • “Test the waters” for new ideas without making it seem that you’re so attached to them that you’ll fight to impose them on others.
  • If an ego clash erupts, see if you can identify something that the disagreeing individuals can agree on. Perhaps this will be a superordinate goal. It could also be a common opposing force, since the idea that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” can serve to bind people together.
  • Employ active listening. Strive to fully understand other people’s viewpoints before stating your own.
  • If people’s comments meander to topics that aren’t germane, steer the discussion back to the key issues under discussion.
  • Frame the situation as a problem to be solved, rather than as a struggle which must be won.
  • Treat everyone as partners on a common quest. Invite continued frank interchanges and assure group members that they may speak out without fear of reprisal.
  • Consider carefully how important it is for you to prevail in a particular conflict or even just to express your views. Ask yourself whether the potential negative consequences of your action will be worth it.
  • Unless a disagreement is over an essential point, consider whether it might be best to “agree to disagree” and move on.

Resolving Conflicts in Groups – The GRIT Method

When conflict is serious enough that it causes a rift within the workplace culture, the kind that pollutes the work atmosphere and threatens irreparable damage, a methodical, collaborative approach conflict resolution can help lead to an amicable solution. Standard procedure in negotiations is a method called GRIT that was developed by Charles E. Osgood (1962) at the height of the Cold War. In a situation where two opposing sides are deadlocked. GRIT stands for Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-reduction, sometimes watered down into Gradual Reduction in Tension. It involves one side initiating a breakthrough in the form of a concession or compromise on one of its demands. The norm of reciprocity obligates the other side to return the favour with a concession of its own, giving up one of its demands. Both sides build trust by reciprocal compromises back and forth till they reach an amicable solution. Though Osgood’s intention was to thaw Cold War relations between superpowers, GRIT has proven useful in other international peace processes (e.g., between Israel and Egypt in 1977) and even in minor workplace squabbles (Psychology, 2016).

Let’s say you find yourself getting between two conflict parties at your job; on one side is a trusted co-worker, Dave, and the other is the manager, Karin, whom you like very much. They don’t see eye-to-eye on the way a major aspect of the operation is set up, and it’s caused a rift that is starting to draw other employees in to take sides. Team Dave doesn’t miss opportunities to take pot-shots at anyone on Team Karin for being management lackies, and Team Karin has been dismissive of Team Dave’s concerns and it’s members have been threatening to get Team Dave members fired. It doesn’t look like this will end well. Your sympathies go to both sides, so you propose to mediate between them. Applying GRIT in this situation would look like the following:

  1. Get both sides to agree to talk formally with one another in the meeting room with the goal of resolving the conflict. Reasonable human beings will recognize that the toxic environment is hindering productivity and is bad for business. Team Dave knows that it will be a hassle having to look for and secure new jobs, and Team Karin knows it’ll likewise be a lot of work to let everyone go and re-hire half the operation, which will take time and will meanwhile slow operations down even further. No one want this despite everyone taking sides and digging into their chosen positions till now. The willingness to participate in a conflict resolution process requires that both parties show a concern for rescuing the relationship.
  2. After sitting down to talk to one another, actually listen to one another’s concerns. Much of conflict in the workplace happens when two sides don’t understand each other’s thinking. Sharing each other’s thoughts in a mature and controlled way will dispel some of the misunderstandings that led to the conflict. One side gets a certain amount of time to state their case uninterrupted. The other gets the same. Then they take turns responding to each other’s points.
  3. Establish common ground. When two sides are locked in a dispute, they usually share more in common than they realize. After discussing their differences, movement forward toward a resolution must involve establishing points of agreement. If both parties agree that the success of their operation is in their best interests, then you can start with such common goals and then work your way down to more specific points of agreement. These may begin to suggest solutions.
  4. Discuss innovative solutions to the conflict. With everyone in the room representing their various interests within the organization and listening to one another’s concerns, truly cooperative collaboration can begin in identifying solutions to operational problems.
  5. Take turns exchanging concessions GRIT-style. After establishing common ground and considering pathways towards operational solutions, address the lingering differences by getting both sides to prioritize them and offer up the lowest-priority demands as a sacrifice to the deal you want them to strike. If the other side like this, the principle of reciprocity compels them to drop their lowest priority demand as well. Then both sides go back and forth like this with each condition until they reach an agreement.

The agreement reached through such a collaborative process is a productive and reconciling one. Both sides can learn from each other and develop professional from the process. Of course, if you find yourself on one side of such a conflict, you can certainly represent those interests while also playing the mediator.

If negotiations stall as both sides dig in and won’t budge on contentious demands, however, calling in a mediator to conduct the negotiations and possibly an arbitrator to decide on what’s fair for both parties is the best way forward. These may be found within an organization if it’s staffed with people properly trained to mediate or arbitrate neutrally, or perhaps outside. Whatever the case, conflict resolution starts with you, so getting practice in following this method builds excellent group problem-solving skills.

Adapted Works

Conflict Resolution Strategies” in Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Small Group Dynamics” in Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Effective Conflict Management” in An Introduction to Group Communication by Phil Venditti and Scott McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Bormann, E. G., & Borman, N. C. (1988). Effective small group communication (4th ed). Burgess Publishing.

Ellis, D. G.,& Fisher, A. B. (1994). Small group decision making: Communication and the group process (4th ed). McGraw-Hill.

Osgood, C. E. (1962). An alternative to war or surrender. University of Illinois Press. https://books.google.ca/books/about/An_alternative_to_war_or_surrender.html?id=gushAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

Psychology. (2016, January 8). GRIT tension reduction strategy. https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/antisocial-behavior/grit-tension-reduction-strategy/


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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