Conflict resolution in flat structure teams

Workplace conflict can have a seriously detrimental effect on workers, the backbone of the retail industry. Conflict is one of the most distracting and negative forces at work and a huge cost to business, influencing workers to take sick leave or abandon their roles altogether.

Traditionally, workplace conflicts were referred within the organisational hierarchy for resolution. Issues that could not be resolved directly between workers were typically escalated to a manager or team leader. Managers found themselves having to deal with a variety of issues including personality clashes, bullying allegations, communication problems, performance issues.

However, many organisations are abandoning hierarchical structures for flatter structures where individuals work together as a team to achieve stated goals. Whilst there are many advantages in a level structure, it raises the question “who is responsible to manage conflict when it occurs?”

New structures require new systems and a conflict management system for a flat structure has different features to a traditional conflict resolution system under a hierarchy. Getting this right is important for positive team dynamics, wellness at work and outcomes that align with organisational objectives.

There are 4 key strategies for managing conflict within a flat structure:

1. Design a conflict management plan

Don’t wait for conflict to happen. Workplace conflict should be anticipated and appropriate systems put in place in advance. This means taking the time to consider what types of conflict are likely to occur and how they should be managed. Some conflicts can be resolved without the involvement of others, where as other conflicts may be serious enough to warrant group intervention or external assistance.

What are the risks of allowing the conflict to escalate, how many people might get involved and what would the impact be for the organisation? Is support required from an external mediator or facilitator? It’s not a case of “one size fits all” as each organisation will have its own requirements and upfront design of a conflict management plan is best undertaken by people who understand the business and its challenges. Once the plan is agreed, communicate the plan to the team(s) and conduct periodic review of the system.

2. Re-frame conversations about conflict

Communication is critical in order to prevent and manage conflict. Teams need to discuss issues that are arising as soon as possible. It can be helpful to have issue resolution as a permanent item on the agenda for discussion. This topic can be “reframed”on the agenda to “opportunities for improvement.” This is not to say that conflict conversations should be avoided. Training on “courageous conversations” can assist team members to tackle the hard issues diplomatically and in a way that promotes growth and learning (rather than retribution).

3. Encourage group thinking on outcomes

The team should move the focus away from blame ie “who is responsible for this?” towards discussing solutions and outcomes. Where possible, keep the focus on the future ie “what needs to be done” “how could this be handled differently” “how could this be prevented in future?” Whilst people need to be accountable for their actions and for serious misdemeanours, blaming individuals generally distracts productive problem solving. The team should look past the obvious symptoms of the problem to the underlying root causes.

4. Focus on the positives

Rather than focusing on what is going wrong, the team should focus on the positives – what is going right? Reinforcement of positive behaviours and actions will lead to an increase of those behaviours. A constant focus on what is going wrong creates a negative culture and one in which conflict can thrive. Use language to inspire a positive focus and provide positive feedback, congratulations for a job well done and acknowledgement of those who make a positive contribution.

Employees are critically important to the success of any retail business. With organisations moving towards flatter structures, self-managed teams need to find new ways to manage conflict. Starting with a conflict management plan puts teams on the front foot. Thereafter, addressing potential conflicts early with a focus on exploring positive outcomes will help to reduce and prevent conflict in flat structure organisations.

Nicole Cullen is the founding director of Cullaborate Pty Ltd and is passionate about taking customer complaints management to the highest level. Learn more at




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