Conflicting Groups – Are You Looking For Trouble?

Written By:

Add to Your Total Sum, Take Away the Division

Conflicting groups are a sign of unhealthy businesses that wise leaders and managers need to watch for and address. Poor communication leads to alienation and people feeling undervalued. It affects their mental health and wellbeing. And performance and productivity suffer.

This Used To Be a Great Business. So Where Did It All Go Wrong?

In this article, we look at conflict’s effect on companies. We explore how conflicting groups arise, and the different kinds of conflict that occur. And we consider how to resolve them and address the challenge of bringing everyone back on board successfully. Conflicting groups create negative energy. But working to resolve conflicts will redirect this energy back into the business and refocus on the company vision.

The Worst Case scenario

Alienated colleagues share their frustrations with sympathetic coworkers, and negative feelings of resentment and division grow. Also, as society becomes increasingly diverse, workforces can become factionalised, rather than achieving inclusivity and co-creation. Again, this leads to conflict, with people focused on personal issues, not the company vision. And all this distracts from getting on with the job and being productive.

We’ll look further at the causes of conflict in business in a moment. But first, here’s a positivity shot. You can add to your business’s “total sum” by taking away the division. That sounds like cheesy wordplay. But overcoming differences and working together in ‘co-creation’ achieves far more than you might expect. War is over, if you want it, as John Lennon sang. 2 + 2 = 5, as Steven Covey writes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Old school authoritative leaders may be tempted to act tough when taking action to address conflicting groups. But kindness and active listening mean people feel appreciated, even holding different views. It’s good for people’s mental health and wellbeing. And it benefits your business too, contributing to the bottom line.

Team Members Suffer in Conflicts. And So Does the Company.

Businessman quarreling with female coworker represents a conflict
Conflicts help no one


Conflict between groups has negative effects:

  • Increased stress and anxiety, decreasing productivity and satisfaction.
  • Feelings of being defeated and demeaned, which lowers individuals’ morale and may increase staff turnover.
  • A climate of mistrust, which may hinder the teamwork and cooperation necessary to get the job done.

The Consequences of Conflict Can Also Be Good For Businesses.

Inter-group conflict can have negative consequences such as reduced cohesion within the company, and as we mentioned, lower productivity. And it upsets people in the short run. Worst case scenario, it can threaten the business’s continued existence. But handled properly, conflict can provide positive benefits, including resolving misunderstandings, improving processes and changing behaviours.

Three Major Factors Causing Groups to Conflict

Inequalities Between Leaders, Managers and Employees

British industry has been beset by attitude problems over the decades. They haven’t gone away. Hierarchies in businesses contribute to inter-group conflicts. In line and staff conflicts, first, line managers don’t like taking advice from younger or subordinate staff for fear of being shown up. In their insecurity, they don’t give them enough empowerment and resist new ideas and innovation.

Vertical conflicts have inadequate communication between the levels, and differences of interest between people in different positions. This leads to a lack of shared perceptions and attitudes between different levels in the hierarchy. More damaging, superiors attempt to control subordinates. In return, subordinates tend to resist. Active listening on both sides, and willingness to work together, is a start toward improving matters

Factions in Diverse Workforces
Diverse work team eating lunch on a bench
The diverse workplace is common with globalisation


Another constant in recent decades is the UK workforce profile changing as the population becomes more diverse. These days, as women edge closer to equality in the workplace, they are challenging men’s attitudes and behaviour towards them. And managers are being increasingly called to address their unconscious biases, in employing different marginalized groups in today’s workforces. Again, to restore cohesion, businesses need to listen to the various groups’ concerns.

Problematic Inter-Departmental Relationships

Businesses talk about having different functional divisions. But when people feel estranged from colleagues elsewhere in the business, this creates another kind of division. Look what head office wants us to do now. Marketing doesn’t realise what we’re up against. In these horizontal conflicts, employees or departments at the same level are in conflict. They have different ideas about their goals. Or, one department’s breakdown in performance is affecting another. If a team misses a deadline for a deliverable that impacts other people, conflicts arise. When people feel other departments are hindering their efforts, the relationship suffers. And if departments are in silos with different mindsets, that’s difficult too.

7 Signs of Groups in Conflict

Relationships between groups change markedly during a conflict. Watch out for these signs:

  1. Distortions in perception and denying each other’s positive accomplishments.
  2. Interaction between groups decreases: there is less desire to do it.
  3. Essential interactions become rigid and formal.
  4. Shared information is carefully controlled, and may even be distorted,
  5. There is a shift from problem-solving and co-creation to win/lose.
  6. Both groups only see the problem from their point of view. They don’t regard the needs of both sides, or the overall good of the business.
  7. They dwell on the benefits of winning the conflict in the short run and ignore the long-term consequences for both sides.

Group conflicts like this fall into four categories:

  • Functional conflict: How to support the group’s goals and improve their performance
  • Dysfunctional conflicts: Blaming others for hindering their performance
  • Task-based: Disputing who does what in the job
  • Process-based: Disagreeing how the work gets done best

Resolving these conflicts starts with understanding the contentions.

Be Pro-active About Refocusing Everyone on Your Company Vision

Looking through glasses focussing at an opticians eye-test chart
Focus on the company’s vision


Business leaders have a vision for their companies, which they want everyone to share. But when differences arise, they distract from making it a reality. And if people don’t listen to each other, these differences escalate into conflict.

The answer is, that leaders and managers need to be pro-active. As the title of this article says, are you looking for trouble? Then expect to find it. Talk to your people, listen to the grapevine and get the business back to a place where there is understanding.

You can’t do this by micromanaging people and saying they must do as you tell them. Try to appreciate why they are like this. Think about how to re-direct the energy they are putting into the conflict, to the good of the business.

All Sorts of Trouble, Three Types of Conflict

Experts talk about three common types of conflict in business:

  • Task
  • Relationship
  • Value

Let’s look at each of these in turn. First, let’s explain what they are, and then consider how to ‘take a big step’ to resolve them:

Conflict #1 – Task

This involves disagreements over budgets and resources, processes, managing expectations and crucially, judgements and interpretations of facts. Task conflicts might seem the easiest to sort out. But if there’s underlying personal animosity as well, they could be harder to resolve. We’ll look at this aspect in Conflict #2: Relationship. Before that,

Take a big step: As we said, leaders and managers need to engage in active listening. First of all, speak to both sides separately. Ask questions and as leader, confirm your understanding. Then bring both sides together to arrive at a solution everyone’s happy with. From there, get them to agree a team plan. The underlying principle is that the business matters more than the differences between the people in it. Focus on getting back in sync with the company vision, and achieving co-creation.

Conflict #2 – Relationship

These conflicts arise from differences in temperament and ways of working. As we said earlier, when functional groups are very different from each other, this can lead to conflict. Relationship conflicts between departments are likely to arise in businesses with functional silos. That’s especially so these days with some people in head office and regional office-based functions and others in site-based operations.  Knowing people working in offices are free to enjoy hybrid working, site-based colleagues may feel hard done by. And this may worsen site-based teams’ feeling of a gulf between them and their flexi-working peers.

Take a big step: Encourage different departments to get to know each other better. Encourage teams to visit each other and spend time together. And don’t make the chat just about business.

Five team members getting to know each other in an office
Encourage time bonding among teams


Conflict #3: Value

These conflicts arise from differences in identities and values. Disputes about values can arise over work decisions and policies. That’s especially so with a diverse workforce. Values are personal and important to the individual. When we feel our values are being attacked, it leads to defensiveness, distrust and alienation. Individuals affected by this become withdrawn, less involved and less productive.

Take a big step: Make respect for other people’s values part of your organisational values. Recognise that different personal factors shape their views, and be open-minded. Appeal to the values the conflicting parties both share. Aim for “cognitive understanding,” both sides reaching an accurate understanding of each other’s point of view. This doesn’t mean there has to be sympathy as such or an emotional connection. There just needs to be a “values-neutral” ability to grasp accurately what the other person believes about the situation. And from there you can work together towards a resolution.

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Conflicting groups’ perceptions of a situation tend to be black and white. They can’t see, or they refuse to see, the nuances. There’s a similar situation when you’re trying to sort out the conflict. It’s not necessarily all one side’s fault. And the conflict you’re concerned about won’t necessarily be 100% task-related, relationship-related or values-related. What started as a task conflict might have spilt over into a relationship conflict.  More than likely there will be an element of each. You need to listen and implement a combination of the big steps we mentioned.

When a Business is Growing, People Grow at Different Speeds

Hands golding growing plants
We don’t all grow at the same rate


It might help to think of group conflicts as growing pains. They are clearly more likely to happen in companies that are growing and taking on staff. Different kinds of people join the teams. Large companies with diverse leadership teams are succeeding spectacularly. An international McKinsey survey shows they are 33% more likely to outperform on profitability.  And that’s because they’ve got past the group conflict stage, and are focused on their core values.

An ABC of Conflict Jargon

Here are some different kinds of conflict to think about:

  • Affective: Individuals or groups don’t get along with each other.
  • Behavioural: One person or group does things that are unacceptable to others.
  • Cognitive: A person or a group holds ideas or opinions inconsistent with those of others.
  • Goal: One person or group desires a different outcome from the others. They clash over whose goals are going to be pursued.
  • Intergroup: Disagreement between two opposing forces over goals or the sharing of resources.
  • Inter-organisational: Disputes between two companies
  • Interpersonal: Two individuals disagree
  • Intrapersonal: Conflict within a person

This last point is telling. Individuals can be torn over committing to one side or the other in a business conflict.  This could be because they can see the benefits of both sides of the argument. This understanding could actually be beneficial for everyone.

Let’s Turn This into A Win-Win Situation

The aim of all this is to reach a solution everyone agrees with. Let’s look at how to do that. Working with different groups to address conflict constructively is an important soft skill for leaders and managers. People react instinctively to conflict in a number of ways. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five strategies we use in resolving them. These are based on there being a fixed number of combinations of assertiveness and cooperativeness to shape our response. You can also see these strategies in terms of ignoring, winning and losing.

  • Avoid (Ignoring): You’re neither assertive nor cooperative. Instead, you’re either ignoring the conflict or withdrawing. We do this when the fear of confrontation is stronger than our desire for a satisfying resolution. But you won’t move things on by ignoring the conflict. It’s still there.
  • Compete (Win/Lose): This means being assertive, but not cooperating. There should be just one winner, and it’s you. You’re not listening to the other person, and that won’t solve the problem.
  • Accommodate (Lose/Win): You’re cooperating, but not being assertive about your own views. Giving way to keep the peace could mean the problem remains.
  • Compromise (Lose-Lose): Neither side is being totally assertive or cooperative. Yes, you’ll reach a settlement. But for how long?
  • Collaborate (Win-Win): You and the others are both asserting yourselves and cooperating. You’re validating the other person, understanding and accepting each other’s position. And you’re actively listening and moving forward.

And Finally: Where Do We Go From Here? Don’t Hesitate – Communicate!

Team around a table communicating and working
Remember to communicate


The only way is up. Once you’ve resolved a conflict, it’s important to be clear that conflicting groups won’t help achieve the company values you all want.  Here are some ways to do that:

  • Draw up team plans to monitor progress towards agreed goals.
  • Hold regular meetings with leaders and managers to review progress and encourage informal interactions between departments and members.
  • Listen to the grapevine and feedback from departments, and keep leadership informed.
  • Encourage leaders and managers to engage more with their teams, and be more visible in the business.

You’ve come a long way. Now, the final step is to make your vertical communications more informal and optimise two-way communication. Communicate the company values widely, using your available communication channels. And keep reviewing everything. You can all win! For even more, check out our ultimate guide on Conflict Resolution Skills.

Related Articles:

Conflict Resolution SkillsConflict Resolution TipsManaging Conflict in the Workplace

Sign up to receive regular articles on learning and development.

You may also like: