How To

December 2, 2022

How to manage conflict within teams

Managing heated situations and giving tough feedback are among the most important skills for founders to learn

Having tough, direct conversations is the task that leaders find most difficult — and for good reason, says executive coach Olivia Meyrick. If communication is managed poorly, it can damage relationships and destroy trust.

Conflict, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it can help teams come up with new ideas, manage business risks and ultimately get the best out of everyone in the room. In our Startup Life newsletter, we spoke to Olivia for her top tips on making conflict productive.

Create rules for communication

Lay out some ground rules for how you as a team will communicate with each other, both in meetings and day-to-day conversations in the office. For example, you can establish the fact that if one person disagrees with or gives feedback to another, it’s coming from a positive, rather than combative, place. Establish what language you are all going to use when you communicate, i.e. that you don’t speak in extremes or use phrases like “you always do this and never do that”, which can feel accusatory.


Also, if an issue arises that needs to be discussed as a team, make sure that you all talk about the issue and stay on the subject — instead of throwing a whole load of other problems into the mix. Laying out these rules helps to normalise conflict: switching it from something perceived to be a bad thing that should be avoided at all costs, to something that can be productive when managed thoughtfully.

De-escalate conflict at the earliest stage

When coaching leaders in conflict management, I typically give them a four-step process for handling contentious situations before they get bigger.

1. Outline the situation. For instance: there was an all hands meeting at 9am on Friday morning, which was important to discuss quarterly results.

2. Be clear on the person’s behaviour (not their character!). If an employee arrived late to the all hands meeting, as they do almost every week, give the observable facts — i.e. “you arrived 10 minutes late which disrupted the flow of the meeting” — so that if you could watch a recording of the event, you would both agree on that reality.

3. Then, communicate the impact: for instance, “coming late to the meeting every week is disrespectful to the team; we often have to start again and repeat ourselves for your benefit”.

4.  Next, try to come to a conclusion together on how to break this pattern of behaviour. As a manager, you can ask the employee how you can help them get to this 9am on time, what needs to change, and what commitments or obstacles could be removed to help them show up on time.

Also, don’t assume intent and motives. Often, we think that if someone is late, it’s because they don’t respect our time or they are lazy — but we wouldn’t judge ourselves in the same way. When you start making assumptions, that’s when people flare up and defend themselves. Being clear on the behaviour and its impact is less inflammatory — and after all, people can’t argue against objective facts.

Don’t assume you’re always right

You see this a lot in relationship therapy: a person will tell the therapist that everything their partner does is wrong and that it’s them that needs fixing. But that perspective — or lack of it — is unhelpful when it comes to solving problems. All of us need to remember to turn the lens back on ourselves and ask: how am I contributing to this situation? What steps am I taking that force the person to act in this way? You can’t always lay the blame at another’s person’s door — you should instead acknowledge the part you’re playing in the situation.

Conflict management is the same, regardless of relationship

Whether it’s manager to employee or peer to peer, how you manage conflict is always the same: calling out the behaviour quickly and specifically and sharing its impact. The reason it works regardless of hierarchy is because it’s about creating dialogue: communicating your perspective, but also asking the other person how they see things, too. It’s not about winning or trying to be right, it’s about asking questions and putting more information into the pool to be able to understand the other person and empathise with them.

On the subject of... Managing conflict

⚔️ Handling disagreements. Here’s how to help employees resolve conflict among themselves, without you — the leader — jumping in and making a decision on their behalf.


🤐 Having impossible conversations. This book might help you navigate heated debates, regardless of the topic or situation.

✌️ Nonviolent communication. This form of communication is used in war zones to peacefully resolve conflict — but it can be applied to everyday work situations, too.

👊🏽 Tackle conflict head on. Forbes details five ways of dealing with workplace conflicts directly.

🛑 How NOT to manage conflict. HBR outlines four ways of dealing with difficult colleagues that rarely work, and almost always backfire.

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s DACH correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @mparts_

Miriam Partington

Miriam Partington is a reporter at Sifted. She covers the DACH region and the future of work, and coauthors Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn