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4 product conflict resolution tips to create team synergy
Great product teams bring together a variety of backgrounds, points of view, skills, and personalities, which is essential to building a successful team—but it can also lead to tension and conflict.
However, with the right mindset and a thoughtful approach, conflict can inspire meaningful solutions that ultimately benefit your team’s ability to build and deliver brilliant products.
In this article, we explore why conflict happens and how you can use it to demonstrate key values and behaviors within your product team.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time8 min
2 types of team conflicts
Team conflicts can usually be categorized in one of two ways:
Task conflict, also known as cognitive or substantive conflict, which happens when disagreement occurs about setting or accomplishing team objectives.
Relationship conflict, also known as affective conflict or emotional conflict, which happens when disagreement occurs due to interpersonal difficulties or differences.
For decades, there have been discussions, research, and debates about the nature of conflict in business and its effect on teams. One popular opinion holds that task conflict is largely constructive and can lead to positive outcomes, while relationship conflict is damaging and more likely to lead to failure.
If you’re experiencing conflict in your team, it’s worth considering: is it a task or relationship conflict? If it’s the former, should you facilitate it? If it’s the latter, how can you refocus it?
Keeping the above questions in mind, let’s look less at what conflict is and more at what it does.
How can product conflict affect your team?
While some conflict can be beneficial to teams and help drive success—by encouraging problem-solving and innovation—there are many ways the wrong sort of conflict can disrupt your team and derail your product goals. Here’s how:
It can be a distraction that reduces output
By its very nature, conflict isn’t efficient—it involves debate and complexity, and it takes time to resolve.
For example, if a task conflict slows down the engineering team’s ability to fix bugs, it might prevent the product management team from delivering product changes. The conflict blocks you from iterating at speed and slows down the whole team.
It can damage team synergy and the ability to collaborate
Conflict can result in dominant individuals controlling the debate.
When dominant individuals—like HiPPOs (learn more in our pro tip!)—always end up winning internal battles, other team members stop speaking up, knowing their contributions won’t be taken seriously.
Without a proper debate on key problems, teams can fall into group-think mode. It’s not easy to innovate or find imaginative solutions when ideas go unchallenged, making it difficult to create customer delight.
Pro tip: we all know a HiPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion) can disrupt your product vision and potentially become a source of conflict.
While you need to listen to a HiPPO’s point of view and take their arguments on board, it’s your job to do what’s right for your product and remain guided by user needs.
Keep your product development user-centric and avoid conflict by keeping emotion and gut feeling out of the conversation. To do this, focus on what the user needs and make sure your product decisions are backed up by data.
For example, share Hotjar Recordings and Feedback responses with your team to help make data-informed product decisions. All but the most unreasonable HiPPOs are much more likely to see things your way if user data is your guiding star.
It's bad for communication, causes poor coordination, and affects innovation
Conflict can cause resentment within a team. As a result, people stop sharing information, they’re less likely to seek help, and they cut back on their interactions with each other.
In remote or cross-functional teams, regular interactions are crucial to effective coordination. If your team stops communicating regularly, feelings of animosity are more likely to grow, creating a vicious cycle of:
poor communication and collaboration → missed targets → feelings of resentment → poor communication and collaboration → (and on and on it goes)
It can cause demotivation
The wrong sort of conflict can cause people to become demotivated. When this happens, they become insular, and are less creative and productive. And since the product development process is cross-functional by nature, a drop-off in motivation, creativity, or productivity in one team—or individual—can affect other teams, too.
If internal conflict demotivates your team, their ability to create solutions and efficiently complete tasks suffers—and so does the product, which means your customers’ needs go unmet.
Common causes of conflict
As we mentioned, conflict occurs either because of a task-related issue (like a disagreement about backlog management) or an interpersonal issue (like incompatible behaviors and attitudes).
Here are some common causes of conflict:
Competing interests: if two team members work towards conflicting goals on a collaborative task, it could cause tension between them.
Limited resources: not having the tools and support necessary to do the job can be a source of conflict. Product teams need quick access to data analytics and business intelligence tools to respond to users. If the flow of data insight is limited or slow, it can be frustrating, creating friction between product team members and management.
Limited human resources: if your team is stretched and working long hours to meet unrealistic goals, this can lead to stress and burnout. Not only is this detrimental to your health, but it’ll likely cause short tempers, errors, and misjudgments, which give rise to conflicts and compromise your product initiatives.
Clashing behavior, attitudes, or values: different approaches to problem-solving can create tension—even if both are valid. For example, maybe one engineer is used to waterfall product management methodologies while another has completely bought into agile workflows. Each could find the other’s approach frustrating, which will disrupt team harmony.
Poor communication: if there’s ambiguity over who’s responsible for specific tasks within a certain area of product development—like user research data collection and analysis—it could lead to work duplication and missed deliverables. This can affect the product team’s overall efficiency and cause conflict.
4 tips to resolve product conflict
When conflict arises, everyone bears the responsibility of seeking a solution for the team's benefit. But since product managers are at the center of the product development’s cross-functional effort, it is your responsibility to lead the team to a solution.
Here are four tips to resolve conflict in your product team.
1. Re-enforce your organization’s shared vision
When you get involved in a conflict, even as a neutral mediator, emotional and defensive team members might think you're taking sides.
By deferring to what’s important to your company and customers (rather than to individual team members), you can remain objective and draw everyone’s attention to the team's shared goals and principles, which can help resolve an immediate problem.
For example, if an operating principle of your organization is to base decision-making on creating value for the customer, use that to your advantage:
Imagine there’s a task conflict over which new feature to launch first. You may simplify the debate for everyone by returning to that core principle. In this case, instead of a discussion centered on what’s quickest, fairest, or easiest, it can be focused on what customers would value most.
2. Help the team identify and define core issues
Even a task conflict—which might appear to be the direct result of a difference of opinion on operational or strategic matters—could be the symptom of another problem, such as stress caused by an interpersonal issue between co-workers, burnout, or poor communication.
Creating a safe and calm environment for people to discuss and debate is one of your most important tasks as a mediator during a conflict.
It’s one thing for you to identify the root cause of a conflict, but if you can help your team do that, they’ll be better equipped to find and accept a compromise. Give them a platform to express themselves and listen to each other’s frustrations. A safe, shared platform like this will help diffuse their sense of frustration and give them the chance to articulate the specific problems they’re encountering.
Team members are more likely to empathize with each other if they have a safe space to identify the core problem and build a solution together.
3. Help them implement a solution
Product managers naturally take on a leadership role in an organization as they connect a range of individuals and departments. When team members find a way through their differences to identify the causes of a conflict and come up with solutions, you need to proactively put those solutions into practice.
This could mean speaking with key stakeholders to bring in new software or other essential tools and resources, meeting with project managers to create new workflows, or gathering other departments to review and update their procedures and processes.
While at first you might see this as an unfortunate addition to your workload and responsibilities, it's an opportunity to create team synergy amongst the developers, designers, marketers, and executives who, together, bring value to the customer.
4. Exemplify core behaviors and values
You have an opportunity to lead by example, and exhibit how to behave and communicate during conflict. As you help your team reach a resolution, demonstrate composure and keep focused on a positive outcome with these three points in mind:
Stay calm: knowing there are strong feelings in play, staying calm will set the tone for any discussion. If it’s a task conflict, being calm and using data to support decision-making will keep things constructive, and if it’s a relationship conflict, a more considered approach will help people refocus on the team’s objectives.
Listen: it’s a simple point, but listening isn’t just important, it’s essential. Listening carefully to everyone’s point of view is necessary for people to feel valued, and paying attention to every perspective will help you understand the cause of the conflict, whether it’s an issue with resources, practices, or competing interests.
Seek a compromise: as long as the business objectives aren’t put at risk, look to find a compromising solution that will help everyone move on. It might mean changing workflows, reassigning tasks, or using new software—if it resolves the conflict without harming the product or customer experience, show your flexibility, demonstrate the value of collaboration, and implement what’s needed.
Product management conflict: find a solution for the whole team
Dealing with conflict shouldn’t be treated as a distraction: it’s one of your most important product management challenges.
Fostering collaboration, facilitating communication, and instilling shared values creates an environment that’s conducive to problem-solving and innovation—and resolving conflict—which are needed to deliver the product your users want.