7 Strategies to Address Team Infighting

Would it surprise you to know that having conflict with your team is healthy?

It’s true. Having healthy, respectful disagreements where everyone expresses their point of view is important and allows the best ideas to emerge. When handled well, conflict can actually make a team more cohesive.

However, when disagreements become dysfunctional when they explode into blame, bitter comments, and name calling and have to be stopped.

Address infighting productively

If you’re the leader whose team has repetitive, heated meetings that prevent work from getting done, it’s up to you to address those involved and model productive conflict.

The challenge of how to address team infighting came up in a recent leadership development training. The leader acknowledged feeling overwhelmed and struggled to address the situation in the moment. He knew he had to take control – but how?

If you’ve been there too, here are seven fundamental strategies for addressing team infighting. While not every situation is the same, use these seven strategies as a starting point to stop disruptive behaviors and set expectations for how your team works through conflict.

     1. Be in control of your reaction

When employees are at odds with one another, their words and actions can be so reactive that you feel overwhelmed by the tension and negativity.

Before you intervene, getting control of your emotions and reaction is key. Just like parents need to be (and stay) in control of their response when their child is acting out, so do you as the leader of your team.

In the moment, call for a time-out by saying, “Please be quiet for a minute. All of us let’s take a pause and breath to calm down.” Simply stop.

      2. Set boundaries

Let everyone in the room know what just happened isn’t okay. You can say “The way we speak to each is with respect and courtesy. It’s okay to disagree, it’s not okay to name call and yell.”

Setting boundaries shows you as the leader are bringing structure to the emotions in the room that will help to get everyone on track, including team members who just witnessed their team members outburst. Be respectful and confident in your tone conveying you’re bringing order to what could become an out-of-control meeting.

     3. Show empathy

Depending on the context and how long the tension has been happening between the two employees, another strategy is showing empathy. Empathy is letting people know you recognize something is driving the extreme reactions.

To show empathy you can say “I know you both care about this project and want the best possible outcome. I’d like to hear from each of you your point of view and what each of you are willing to do to work this out between the two of you.”

Showing empathy defuses the tension and calms down everyone’s brain which at this point is in fight/flight/freeze mode. This strategy will also help to reset the expectation that people are reasonable and rational in how they interact.

     4. Listen to understand

Ask the two team members to state calmly their perspective about the issue at hand. Encourage asking questions to make sure they understand each other’s point of view.

If appropriate, ask other team members what they’re hearing from the team members and offer their perspective. Including the team in giving feedback as well as what it’s like for them when the two team members are arguing with one other will help the team to talk about how their affected. This step will give context to how everyone’s behavior affects each other.

Be ready to jump in to keep the conversation on track and redirect if someone starts reverting back to blame or finger pointing.

     5. Reframe to Stop Blame

As each team member shares their perspective, acknowledge and restate what’s been said will help turn negatives into positives. Reframing shifts viewing each other as villain to allies. It lowers everyone’s defensives in order to work together instead of against one another.

As the leader, encourage each team member to identify what they want and how the team might be able to support them.

     6. Follow-up with the two team members after the meeting

Following up individually with the team members at odds with each other shows you care about them and are taking a personal interest in how they’re doing. While you want to set limits around how their behavior is affecting the team, it’s imperative to also show you’re concerned about them as a person and if additional help may be beneficial to address what’s driving the angst with their colleague.

     7. Convey the expectation that conflict is addressed directly and with respect

Use your best judgement to use any or all of the above strategies when members of your team are in conflict. Unless the situation is extremely volatile or dangerous, be empathic first and address the tension with the team.

Dysfunctional teams avoid direct communication and focus on blame, shame, and finger-pointing. Healthy team address differences directly and with respect. Convey the expectation of being a healthy team.  

Show Down to Go Fast

Addressing team tension in the moment is often messy and uncomfortable. It can feel like it’s slowing down getting work done. In the long run, it will speed up your team productivity and elevate team cohesiveness by addressing conflict in the moment and in a way that is respectful and healthy.

“I recognize I can be very driven and expect a lot of my employees. At that moment, I knew I could ignore what the employee said or I could welcome it as an opportunity for us to be honest with each other in order for our team to get better. With everything our employees have gone through with the pandemic and how hard they’ve been working, I didn’t want to blow it. I knew instantly how I responded could easily shut them down if I didn’t stay open when it took real guts for that employee to speak up.”

About the author

Bonnie Artman Fox is a leadership coach and Accredited Boss Whisperer®. She works with leaders to improve interpersonal skills and bring their teams together. Bonnie is the author of the best-selling book How Did My Family Get In My Office?!

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