Leadership Retreats Resources

Overcoming Team Tension

August 7, 2017
Cohesive Teams

Have you ever been in a situation in which someone on your team has rubbed you the wrong way?

The offense may not be personal (though that is definitely possible), but illustrates that you are not moving in the same direction at the same time. This can happen at any time with anyone on any team.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not the responsibility of your leader to resolve interpersonal conflict; it’s yours. Below are a few steps you can take to ease the tension before it destroys a relationship.

Step 1: Admit there is a problem.

The first step toward solving any problem is recognizing it as a problem. Tension between you and another member of your team affects your mood and behavior. However, the team member causing the tension may be blissfully unaware; waiting for him or her to make the first step toward resolution is pointless. Admit there is a problem and move on to the next step toward solving it. Allowing an offense to fester builds bitterness, resentment, and anger. It also is a catalyst for poor performance, loss of engagement, as well as gossip, which spreads the problem like a virus to other parts of the team.

Step 2: Identify the root cause.

Understanding the reason behind your feelings is key to addressing and releasing the tension. To do this, try implementing an exercise originally developed by Toyota called “5 Whys.” The key to making this system work for you is to engage it with a calm, clear mind, free of anger. Don’t assume negative intent, just focus on the facts. Start by stating the problem; then ask “why?” Once you have an answer, ask “why?” again. Repeat the question five times, digging into the problem more deeply each time. This should allow you to discover the root cause.

Step 3: Set a face-to-face meeting.

Don’t wait; be bold and set a meeting with the other party as soon as possible with the goal of discovering and addressing the root cause. Prepare your thoughts ahead of time, avoiding words like “should” or overgeneralizations like “always” or “never” (such words will be heard as a personal attack and will invite defensive responses that exacerbate the problem). Make “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Come to the meeting ready to listen as much as you share. If tension is high, consider inviting a mediator to help keep the conversation productive. The purpose is to find a cure, not to address symptoms or apply bandage solutions. Apologize for any poor behavior or your contribution to the worsening problem. Allow the other party to offer his or her perspective and work together to find solutions. Ask questions to gain understanding. You may discover new information that is contributing to the tension. Set your sights on developing a new course of future action that brings the team together.  This initial meeting should result in mutually agreed upon solutions. Put the agreement in writing and send to relevant stakeholders. This allows for understanding/clarity, accountability, and support.

Step 4: Follow up and work together.

Set up a follow-up meeting right away to serve as a check-in as to how the solution is playing out. Do you need to address a previously unforeseen problem? Is the solution working as you both had hoped? Stay committed to following through in resolving the problem. When both parties are working together on a mutually agreed upon solution, there is a feeling of “in it together” as opposed to “them versus us.”

Step 5: Build trust.

Trust is the foundation of effective conflict resolution. When trust is present, conflict can be successfully addressed because all involved know each is working toward the same goal and no one is being personally attacked. If you find arguments centering on people, rather than ideas or processes/systems, then you have a trust issue that should be addressed first. Genuine transparency and honesty is necessary; unless the intent is to learn the thoughts and feelings of another, you will be going nowhere fast.


Leaders should only be included in conflict resolution if it is mutually decided upon by both parties. While the initial instinct may be to involve a leader to resolve conflict, take the opportunity to address the conflict together and create space for relationship moving forward. This will lay the pathway towards building trust. After addressing the conflict personally, a leader can get involved to provide guidance and an objective perspective of the situation. Taking these steps is a sign of growth and progress towards healthy leadership.

No one likes conflict, but conflict is inevitable and necessary to grow. Handling conflict well is the true mark of a mature individual. It may not look pretty at first. It may take lots of practice. The important thing is that you are not ignoring the problem, but moving in a direction that will, hopefully, result in resolution. Is there someone who comes to mind as you read this post? Is there a problem you need to address with him or her? This week, make it a point to follow these steps to ease the tension and start moving in the same direction.