Types of Conflict

Whether good or bad, conflict can be one of many types: for example, personal, work-related, bureaucratic, societal, economic. Here are the types of conflicts that are most relevant to the topic of leadership:

  • Interpersonal

  • Ideological

  • Organizational

  • Operational

  • Relational

Each type is a bit different and requires its own type of handling. You need to be ready to deal with any of them if you want your group to be successful.


Interpersonal conflict is often the single largest source of dispute. This is when people don't get along, and it is often a useless type of conflict. What makes it such a difficult type to manage is its focus on the personal. A team works when it elevates its objectives above individual concerns — when it doesn't let the personal get in the way of the team.

But interpersonal conflict is exactly that: when personal considerations, in the form of a clash between team members, take precedence. If you are around people having this type of conflict, you'll hear that personal aspect. Those involved will frame everything in terms of their own concerns, feelings, and reactions. People in the throes of an interpersonal conflict never say something like, “Oh, darn, I hate how this run-in distracts me and keeps me from pursuing our group goal.” No, what you'll hear instead is, “That so-and-so! I'm tired of having to deal with him when he does that thing that bothers me!”

What you must do is turn attention back to the team goals while understanding that people have a right to their own feelings. Sometimes the feelings are justified. Sexual harassment isn't a trifle, for instance, and you can't tell a victim to just ignore it. But you also don't want to elevate every spat to a legally actionable issue.

When working with conflicts between team members, don't go for the easy solution. Try to get them to devise their own solution. The means by which team members resolve their conflict should have a broad enough structure that the people involved are able to continue to work successfully to make sure the problem doesn't recur.

When the conflict does not rise to that degree of seriousness, work with the team members. Although they may want to focus on proving their points, get them to look instead at what is happening to the team's goals. Ask them how to resolve any issues to enable the group's work to continue. The more you can get them to look at what the group needs, the less they focus on themselves, averting the head-on collision.


You'd be surprised how often ideology in its many forms can appear. A business can insist on promoting a given political, economic, or philosophical view just as much as any advocacy organization. Groups can hold to particular ideas and so can individuals. Strong belief is a powerful force, a form of motivation and vision.

Belief can also be a limitation. When people insist that the world works in a given way, they sometimes refuse to acknowledge anything to the contrary. Cognitive scientists and linguists refer to the condition as a framework. We all have frameworks of culture and experience, but to solve problems, you must not let preconceived thoughts blind you to possible solutions.

By its nature, ideological conflict is difficult to overcome. People literally cannot see that they are stuck. The way to fight ideological conflicts is to start throwing away assumptions. You must insist on re-examining areas where things seem blocked. Investigate and use creativity techniques to break mental associations and find new ways to view situations.

The best way to avoid ideological conflicts is not to get into them in the first place. That means standing guard against the problem. Your principles and the need to support them can help you avoid ideological conflicts. Focus on them and toss other assumptions out the window.


If you want to achieve a goal, you organize your efforts and structure your solution for success. Think about the word organization, which describes a selection of people gathered to achieve something. The way you structure the interaction of people, responsibilities, and hierarchy understandably corresponds with the way you get things done. However, you can do things well or badly.

Speak to experts, and you'll hear that the wrong organization is one of the biggest challenges a group can face. If it's possible to have the right people in certain positions, which is critical to building a good team, you can also have the wrong people. You could have the right people, but problems arise if you structure your organization so that communication doesn't happen easily or at the right time.

Your team may face problems with achieving its goals when there are no conflicts between people or obvious roadblocks. Consider whether your approach to organizing the team doesn't work well with what you are trying to achieve. See if members are getting the information they need on a timely basis directly from the people who have it. Ask if people with the right set of talents or experiences are working together.


Organization can provide conflict, and so can operational issues. The term operations describes how your team structures its work flow, the chain of events that drives what actually happens. Just as proper organization promotes communication, good operations enable action, and it's action you ultimately need if you're going to achieve anything.

Tasks that take too much time and effort to achieve are a sign of operational conflict. Your method of actually getting things done clashes with what you are trying to do. There may be too many steps or duplication or even some activities that send you in the wrong direction before doubling back.

Making a chart of what happens and how it occurs can do wonders. Such a flow chart forces the team to think through every step it takes. If you've never undertaken such an exercise, be ready for some surprises; chances are you have more conflict between your operations and your goals than you think.


There is an entire world out there, and your team and its goals don't exist in isolation. This is the biggest class of conflict, and it includes some of the most difficult things to change. Your team might find that aspects of the larger organization make it difficult to achieve anything. There might be societal pressures or environmental conditions working to your detriment.

Now you can see why this is the biggest — and toughest — class. When conflict is limited to the team, at least you have control. When it is outside, you only have partial control at best, and too many factors are independent of what you decide and which actions you take. Sometimes the best you can do is adapt to circumstances.

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