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A meeting without conflict is a boring meeting, and we’ve seen very little value derived from predictable and unexciting meetings and workshops. Internal and external conflict reflect emotions that, when harnessed, enable creative change.

So rather than run, learn how to understand and manage group conflict. Additionally, the *International Association of Facilitators aspires for you to:

  • “Help individuals identify and review underlying assumptions
  • Recognize conflict and its role within group learning / maturity
  • Provide a safe environment for conflict to surface
  • Manage disruptive group behavior
  • Support the group through resolution of conflict”

To Manage Group Conflict Consider the Synergy of the Tuckman Model and Integral Theory

Facilitators manage groups. Therefore, first understand how groups function and appropriate ways to support them to manage group conflict.

Manage Group Conflict, Group Conflict, Facilitation Group Conflict

Manage Group Conflict

Pre-requisite to Manage Group Conflict, Understand a Group Life Cycle

Groups, like people, develop and evolve. They can also regress. Therefore, as a session leader, you strive to move your group through a developmental sequence. Most groups evolve through four stages as they change. Hence, for any given group, you may see only the first two or three stages. Do not forget—in a room of ten people, there are at least eleven personalities!

To manage group conflict, understand the stages and characteristics of groups, including:

Note:  The four stages are adapted from Tuckman, B.W., “Development sequence in small groups,” Psychological Bulletin, 1965, 63, 384-399.

Manage Group Conflict — Stage 1

Forming— Key word: Confusion. Groups at this early stage are working on two primary areas, the reason they are there (purpose) and social relationships. The Integral theory states that in the beginning of any meeting, people are thinking of themselves, “I”. Consequently, you will see some landmarks such as:

  • “I wonder WHY I’m here?”
  • “I wish I had a cup of coffee.”
  • Concern over purpose, relevance of meeting, “How this helps?”
  • Looking to the leader for structure, answers, approval, acceptance
  • “Why are we here?”
  • Quiet groups
  • Looking to the leader to prove that the meeting will work

Cultures that find themselves locked into this stage are frequently described as “Command Control” where much decision-making is completed by management. Therefore, participants stay focused on “I” such as, “I wish I had eaten something before this meeting.”

Manage Group Conflict — Stage 2

Storming—Key words: Conflict (differences) and creativity. Here groups begin to acknowledge differences in perspectives; conflict is characteristic between members or between members and leader. The Integral theory states that impact of the meeting deliverable can get people to stop thinking selfishly. Consequently, some landmarks include:

  • Struggle for control
  • Some members with strong needs to dominate
  • Possible hostility toward leader
  • Looking to, expecting the leader to be magical
  • Open expression of differences
  • Accepting conflicts as sources of creativity

Cultures in this phase focus on cultivating and changing through personal and professional improvement. Participants get nudged to begin thinking about what “It” is that justified our time together.

Manage Group Conflict — Stage 3

Norming—Key words: communication and commitment. The participants are more comfortable about expressing their opinions. The Integral theory states that once participants understand “it” (deliverable), they can contribute effectively. Hence, some landmarks:

  • More open communication
  • Perhaps some unwillingness to be fully responsible for outcome
  • Inter-member support

Cultures here display and value competence, especially on the expert capabilities of a few members of the group or team. Individuals can start thinking about the deliverables and how it impacts “Thou” people throughout the organization

Manage Group Conflict — Stage 4

Performing—Key words: Community, consensus, and collaboration. Rather than focusing on differences, members begin to recognize the commonality and shared interests. The Integral theory states that once participants collaborate, the “I” dissolves into the pluralistic “We”. The participants form a cohesive team—they unite. Therefore, some landmarks:

Here we have a collaborative culture where decisions are consensus driven and the team works in complete partnership toward success. Hence, the individuals view themselves as an integral unit, known as “We”.

To Manage Group Conflict, Understand Boundaries

Boundaries between stages are not always clear. Nor do groups permanently move from one stage to another. Therefore, as facilitator, you guide the group through the earlier stages into performing. In working with the group during a meeting, you need to gauge how the group, as a whole, is able to perform the task at hand. Depending on the readiness of the group, you as process leader will lead in different ways. Readiness consists of two qualities, job or task readiness and psychological readiness (motivation, confidence).

To Manage Group Conflict, Assess Readiness

To assess the group’s readiness, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. “Do they have the necessary skills or information?” (task readiness). Groups in Stages 1 and 2 lack task readiness.
  2. “Do they have the appropriate emotional qualities or resources (relationship readiness)?” Groups in Stages 2 and 3 lack relationship readiness.

Most importantly, groups in Stage 4 are ready to complete the task and build relationships.

Leadership Styles to Manage Group Conflict

As leader, you monitor these two dimensions (task and relationship) constantly on both a group and an individual level. As you monitor, you express your assessment of the situation with two types of leadership behavior. Consequently, these include:

  • Task/ directive behavior (ie, process policeman)
  • Relationship behavior (ie, empathetic listening)

Understanding Task Behavior to Manage Group Conflict

Task behaviors are characterized by the degree to which a leader engages in directing or controlling group activities (tasks). Direct or control when you assess that the participants have exhibited a comparatively low level of readiness to do a specific task. Some examples of task behaviors are:

  • Controlling (intervening to change the method or situation)
  • Defining roles
  • Directing (supervising and tracking accomplishments against plan, recommending or insisting upon certain methods or procedures)
  • Explaining the agenda and ground rules
  • Organizing (providing access to resources, establishing procedures, etc.)
  • Setting goals, deadlines, planning

Therefore, use task leadership behavior to move a group from Stage 1 (by telling) to Stage 2 (for selling).

Understanding Relationship Behavior to Manage Group Conflict

Relationship behaviors are characterized by the degree to which a leader engages in developing a relationship amongst participants knowing that the relationship is a key factor in completing. They are appropriate when the leader’s assessment is that the participants have exhibited a level of readiness to do a specific task.Some examples of relationship behaviors are:

Therefore, use relationship leadership behavior to move the group from Stage 2 (where you are selling) through Stage 3 (with a participating style) and into Stage 4 (where you delegate).

Differences Between Task and Relationship Behaviors

Another way to think about the difference between task leader behaviors and relationship leader behaviors is to remember that task behaviors focus on how the job is done while the relationship behaviors focus on how the people work together. Task behavior enables the group to do the job. Relationship behavior empowers the group. Therefore, remember that you are a temporary task manager. Hence, determine where the group is with readiness and use the appropriate type of behavior to move them toward successful and efficient completion of the task and deliverable.

To Manage Group Conflict . . .

When you hear communication problems consider the following:

  • Capture what each person is saying—write it on the flip charts without putting their names by the ideas.
  • Draw pictures using visual aids, flip charts, and models. By using visual support or other exercises, participants learn about their business.
  • Get the group to see both similarities and differences.
  • Move the focus of the group away from people and onto the issue(s) at hand.
  • Summarize both similarities and differences and get the group to decide what to do with them or move along to the next step.

By augmenting discussions with visual support or other exercises, participants create shared learnings about their organization.

Paradigms Put You on Alert to Manage Group Conflict 

Paradigms are established accepted norms, patterns of behavior or shared set of assumptions. Hence, they are models that establish boundaries or rules for success. Therefore, paradigms may present structural barriers to creativity based on psychological, cultural, and environmental factors. Hence, examples include:

  • Flow charts, diagrams, and other conventions for presenting information (eg, swim lane diagrams)
  • Stereotypes about men and women and their roles in business, family, and society
  • Where people sit in meetings—once they find a seat it becomes their seat for the rest of the meeting

GroupThink Demands You to Manage Group Conflict

As creatures of habit, we blindly subscribe to our cultural paradigms, unknowingly allow our biases and prejudices to affect our decision-making, and readily fall prey to groupthink. Because, there is power in large numbers, but not necessarily quality. Voting, for example, reflects a method of groupthink decision-making. The winner is not necessarily a better decision, it only reflects a bigger number.

Challenge Both Paradigms and GroupThink

To cause groups to challenge their paradigms or groupthink:

  • Ask the “Paradigm Shift” question—“What is impossible today, but if made possible . . . What would you do differently?” 
  • Force the group to look at a familiar idea or scenario in a new way by changing their perspective. Shifting perspectives frequently helps “shake” paradigms. Consider using Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats or imposing some other perspective or comparison such as:
    • Ant colony compared to a penal colony
    • A weather system compared to a gambling system
    • Monastery compared to the mafia
  • Have a few tools in your hip-pocket that can be readily found with Scannel and Newstrom’s series or many other sources.
  • Use the “Five-year Old” routine—ask—“But why?” frequently, or until the group thoroughly discusses an issue, its assumptions and implications. Also consider the simple challenge, “Because?”

Don’t Forget, People DO Change

Manage Conflict Because People Do Change

Manage Group Conflict Because People Do Change

Dr. Wayne Dyer proved that people do change. Because, there is a quantum shift of values after living twenty to thirty years with both men and women. Hence, the shifts shown below occur after a relatively significant change in maturity, such as we find today with “empty nesters” or people that find themselves no longer hosting others, in particular, their own children.

For some clear and specific suggestions, here are four straightforward activities you can perform to resolve conflict. See the article for detailed support on the four activities below:

  1. Appeal to common purpose
  2. Active listening (for reasons and rationale)
  3. Appeal to objectives
  4. Document and escalate


*IAF Core Facilitator Competencies C3


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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