The value of conflict is a controversial topic in many circles. Some organizations thrive on conflict for its own sake while others avoid conflict at any cost. Either extreme is dysfunctional as conflict can play a vital role in a healthy organization. The challenge is to focus, use and defuse conflict.


Focus requires commitment by the team to the larger purpose or goal. The first question a leader must ask in this situation is, “Can the purpose or goal be easily stated and understood?” If not, work until it is so.

Next, draw up ground rules to avoid making conflict personal and to stay on task toward the stated outcome. Typical rules include things like mutual respect, one person talks at a time, stay on task, honor those who are absent and so on. My personal favorite is “attack issues, not people.” The rules list should be a living document in that it can be added to or changed later as the team needs and wishes change.

As Chair of a 24-member, middle management, financial working group, I had the chance to take part in different degrees of conflict. As with any organization, there was never enough money to fund all the wants and, at times, the needs were funded at lower than ideal.

The continual challenge before us was to sort through posturing and over-inflated requests to manage the budget finances wisely and with fairness. Over time, we developed a set of rules and funding priorities that helped keep budget arguments on task and focused.


After determining purpose and rules, it is time to move to application. DO NOT be intimidated by this next step. Venture in carefully but decisively and be true to the starting agreements above.

The ideal is to have a group that is self-regulating and continually aligning to goals and values (rules). If this is not possible, given the maturity or experience level of the group, hire a professional facilitator or appoint an internal gatekeeper.

If the facilitator is someone from inside the company, this person should be highly respected by the team and one who has a pattern of making sound judgment calls. This is not necessarily the boss and may even be someone from another department or division. The biggest role of the gatekeeper is to keep the process on track by moving toward the goal while honoring the rules with a firm yet considerate approach. (Yes, this is an art form at times.)


Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, passions will swell and tempers flare. If the “discussion” remains focused on the goals and honors the rules, the gatekeeper should allow the conflict to continue. Any time talks become personal though, it is critical to stop and take a breather to allow emotions to settle.

Taking a break anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours or days can do wonders to not only put people in a more rational frame of mind but allow for processing opposing arguments and softening mindsets. Depending on the conflict, well-placed humor may be sufficient to relieve the tension. With more serious misunderstanding comes the need to actually separate for a time.

Persisting in conflict that has degenerated to a personal level of name-calling, posturing, and cynicism does more harm than good to the team. More importantly, this poor behavior, if left unchecked, will lower team output and hurt quality results.

Another benefit of taking a break is a chance for the gatekeeper or facilitator to quietly chat with any person that is either not participating or is inflaming passions on a personal level. This may also be a time to encourage a person who has shut down because of the intensity of the conflict. If the team interactions are staying on task but are passionate, some will find this environment too intimidating.

One-on-One or One-on-a-Few

So far we have talked mostly about teams working together to harness conflict for the betterment of the organization. But what about those inevitable times when conflict pops up between people or in small groups? Here are some thoughts.

• Do not react to the emotion.
• Work to find the issues that matter (Hint: It may not always be the first thing on the table.)
• Brainstorm options and then narrow down to the best fit.
• Stay locked on working to solutions; diagnosing is fine but do not spend time on blaming or other rabbit trails.

For example, while Budget Director, I once had a division head storm into my office and say, “Where is my $300,000?” He insinuated we had “stolen” the money for another division.

I could have become angry and emotional (very tempting) because this manager had the gall to question my integrity. I could have said something like he had no business making such accusations since we had been friends for years. Instead, I opted for the more difficult but useful course to immediately explore the issue and compare notes in a non-emotional way. The good news is we resolved the issue without any damage to trust.

Conflict is challenging even for the experienced but it has great potential to improve an organization if allowed to do so. The trick is to harness the raw energy of conflict and let it show underlying issues in the bright light of reality.


1. Establish an easily stated and understood purpose or goal.
2. Draw up ground rules at the first group session (change over time as needed).
3. Attack issues, not people.
4. If discussions are passionate but on task, allow to continue unless a participant obviously shuts down.
5. When things get personal, take a break of a few minutes, hours or days to let passions cool. Use well-placed humor if appropriate or use break time for individual discussions as required.

Copyright 2010 Mike Friesen

Author's Bio: 

Mike Friesen is a leadership and personal development and offers 3 FREE Gifts For Personal Development - including 'Build Your Signature Brand - at Mike is also the author of the business book, 'Expected End: What Culture Is, Why It Matters, and How to Improve It.'