How to conflict-proof teams: A guide for HR practitioners

As a HR practitioner or training professional, you’ve probably come across Bruce Tuckman’s ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model of team development. But did you realise you can use this model to conflict-proof teams? The idea is to skill up team members during the forming stage, so that when they hit the storming phase they know how to cope. By teaching conflict management skills early you can prevent team disagreements escalating and becoming toxic team dynamics.

Here are five steps HR practitioners or facilitators can take to prepare teams to handle the storming stage productively.

Train supervisors and managers in conflict resolution skills

Skilled supervisors and managers nip conflict in the bud. They know how to use conflict resolution strategies in the real world. They monitor their teams for warning signs of conflict and take action early when disagreements spark. They define issues in neutral language and take a solution-focussed approach to sorting out problems.
They establish fair ground rules and take an unbiased approach to handling workplace conflicts. They take accountability for resolving conflicts themselves, rather than expecting HR to manage the tougher side of people management. However, they know when to call for expert assistance when a situation is complex or high-risk.

Carrying out these steps of conflict management requires high-level communication skills. So it’s important that managers and supervisors receive mediation skills training well before they need to sort out team conflicts. People managers who are dealing with on-going team dynamics issues will often require coaching as well. Coaching helps managers remain resilient and provides a forum in which they can plan their approach to workplace conflicts.

Normalise conflict

During the first stage of team development (forming), everyone will be on their best behaviour. Now is the time to set guidelines and protocols for handling conflict. As an HR practitioner or trainer, you can coach a manager in how to do this. Talk the manager through the following diagram.


Next, explain how the manager can use the diagram to normalise conflict. This involves three steps:

  • Talking the team through the four stages of development
  • Asking team members to assess which stage of development they’re currently in
  • Setting ground rules for handling workplace conflict when it emerges

Sometimes managers will require help facilitating this type of conversation. This is most likely to occur when the team is already showing signs of being in ‘storming’ mode. You can use my free Situation Analyser tool to work out whether a manager needs additional coaching or training support.

Teach collaborative problem solving skills

Very few children are taught how sort out differences collaboratively. This means that few adults enter the workplace with sound conflict management skills. As an HR practitioner or training professional, you need to address this skills gap. This means providing training in:

  • Emotion regulation (or emotional intelligence)
  • Steps for conflict resolution
  • Win/win problem solving
  • Appropriate workplace behaviour

If you’re serious about impacting team dynamics, it’s useful to train the entire team together. This allows staff to build a shared language which they can use when addressing problematic situations back at work. It also creates opportunities to add a team-building dimension to your conflict resolution training session. Consider running an on-site communication skills workshop for the team, or send all team members to the same session of an external course. Your return on your training investment will increase because all team members will gain the same skills and knowledge at the same time.

Run team building activities before they’re ‘needed’

The point of team building is to build and maintain positive team dynamics. So it pays to get in early. Don’t wait until conflict is rife. Instead, encourage managers and team leaders to schedule regular team building activities throughout the year. These can include:

  • Team planning days (best run once a year)
  • Progress review half-days (best run twice a year to track progress on team plans)
  • Conflict resolution skills training
  • Problem-solving workshops (on an as-needs basis)

Do you need to source a facilitator for your team building or training session? Contact Eleanor Shakiba for a free needs analysis discussion now.

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