Getting to the Root Cause of Team Conflict

Getting to the Root Cause of Team Conflict

Building a positive foundation and gathering information are key steps to resolving conflict in your team, but it is going to be difficult to solve the problem if we don’t know what the problem is! You need to delve below the current conflict in the team to the root of the problem. This is important for long-term resolution, rather than a band-aid solution.

Examining Root Causes of Team Conflict

Once the groundwork has been laid, it is important to look at the root causes of the conflict in the team.

One way to do this is through simple verbal investigation. This involves continuously asking “Why?” to get to the root of the problem. An example:

I was very upset when Sharon vetoed my idea at the meeting.

Why <were you upset>?

I felt that my idea had real value and she didn’t listen to what I had to say.

Why <didn’t she listen to what you had to say>?

She has been with the company for a lot longer than I have and I feel that she doesn’t respect me.

Now we have progressed from a single isolated incident to the root cause of the incident itself (and probably many more past and future incidents). Resolving this root cause will provide greater value and satisfaction to all involved.

Paying attention to the wording of the root cause is important, too.

Watch out for vague verbs.

Try to keep emotions out of the problem statements.

Creating a Cause and Effect Diagram

Another way of examining root cause of team conflict is to create a cause and effect diagram (also known as a fishbone diagram) with the person that you are having the conflict. To start, draw a horizontal arrow pointing to the right on a large sheet of paper. At the end of the arrow, write down the problem.

Now, work together to list possible causes. Group these causes. Draw a line pointing to the large arrow for each cause and write the cause at the top.

Now, write each cause on a line pointing to the group arrow. (Sticky notes work well for this.)

Now the people in the conflict have a clear map of what is happening.

Although this technique can be time-consuming, it is excellent for complicated conflicts or for team conflicts where there may be more than one root cause. The drawing should be updated as new causes are discovered.

The Importance of Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution

Forgiveness is a key concept in conflict resolution. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting that the conflict happened, or erasing the emotions that it created. It does mean accepting that the conflict happened. Accepting and working through how it made you feel, accepting the consequences that it had, and letting those actions and consequences exist in the past.

Successful conflict resolution should give the team members some feeling of closure over the issue. Participants should feel that the conflict has been resolved to their satisfaction, and that it will not likely reoccur. These accomplishments should help the team members put the conflict behind them and move forward, to more things that are positive.

These goals should be kept in mind during the resolution process. Ask yourself, “Will resolving this help provide me with closure? Will this action help me accept what has happened and move on?”

Identifying the Benefits of Conflict Resolution

There is no doubt about it – conflict resolution in a team can be hard work. Effective conflict resolution digs deep into the issues, often exploring unfamiliar territory, to resolve the core conflict and prevent the problem from reoccurring.

However, this process can be time-consuming and emotionally difficult. The team members that are in conflict may arrive at a point (or several points) in the conflict resolution process where they wonder, “Is this really worth it?”

When you arrive at these stalemates, look at why you are resolving the conflict. It can also be helpful to explore what will happen if the conflict is not resolved.

What relationships will deteriorate or break up?

If this is a workplace conflict, what is the financial cost to the company?

What will be the emotional cost to the participants?

Who else will be affected?

These questions should help team members put things into perspective and evaluate whether or not the conflict is truly worth resolving. In most situations, resolving the true conflict is well worth the effort in the long term. Visualizing the benefits can provide the motivation to work through the rest of the process.

For complex conflicts, there are some additional ways to stay motivated. It’s OK to break the resolution sessions into parts, with a different goal for each session. It’s also OK to take breaks as needed – a walk around the block or a glass of water can do wonders to refresh the mind and body.


We looked at the importance of getting to the root cause of conflict in your team to achieve long term solutions. The cause and effect diagram was discussed as a way of examining root causes. Then we also explained why forgiveness is essential in the resolution of team conflicts and how you can encourage your team members to resolve conflicts by identifying the benefits of conflict resolution.

Team building events are a great way of identifying conflicts in your team that you may not have known existed. It can also be used as a tool help team members who are in conflict resolve their differences by working together on a non-work related project.


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