Confrontation and conflict between people is as old as, well, people. Any time you have humans operating together there are going to be times when people disagree, don't get on, have differences of opinion or just plain can't stand each other! So how should conflict be managed in teams?
It is a mistake to think that no conflict means the team is effective. Maybe that is true for some teams, but it is more likely that people are focused on maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, following the team "rules" or staying friendly with others no matter what the cost.
Lots of conflict is unhealthy too. Team members who bicker, run each other down, oppose ideas, power play, compete and freeze each other out are toxic.
Effective teams do have conflicts, but they have methods of resolving it constructively. Conflict is seen as a necessary part of life, disagreements are aired, explained, explored and acknowledged.
So how do you create a team environment where disagreements are constructive?
1 -- Have team ground rules or behaviors. These should be developed by the team in a workshop environment and facilitated so all views are heard and the whole team signs off and agrees to "live by the rules." The rules should include "how we manage conflict respectfully."
2 -- Develop a good balance of praise and challenge. If every idea is challenged by the team eventually people stop bringing ideas. Have an agreement that challenge is about improving or building on the idea, not cutting it down.
3 -- Develop coaching skills in the team. A good coach doesn't say "that idea won't work," but rather "who do you think will be most impacted by the proposed change? Do you think our customers are ready for a change of this magnitude?" Testing ideas using coaching skills promotes learning rather than shutting the ideas down.
4 -- When disagreements occur, encourage people to air them constructively. If the issue is too great a neutral third party can help work it through.
5 -- The leader needs to manage issues between people as they occur. Don't assume the people will work it out. Team conflict when left to fester detracts from performance, impacts engagement and can lead to serious issues, like bullying claims.
When conflict happens:
- Explore the source of the conflict
- Bring the parties together to discuss
- Clarify everyone's expectations
- Agree a way forward
- Evaluate the results
On the receiving end of bad workplace behavior? Raise the issue with the person concerned.
- Outline the behavior: "I often feel that you shut me down when I am speaking."
- Be specific: "It happened at the team meeting on Monday, when I was giving my project update and you spoke over me a number of times."
- Explain how it impacts you: "When this happens, I find it frustrating as it feels as if you place no value on my contributions."
- State your preferred outcome: "It would add more value for me if in team meetings you could listen to my ideas and save your comments and questions until the end."
- Ask them to agree to behave differently: "I would appreciate it if you could agree to this change."
If you are suddenly confronted by a colleague who is angry and making a point in public:
Keep your own behavior constructive. Ask them politely to stop the discussion and book a meeting to discuss. This will give them time to calm down and you time to prepare. (If the behavior was extreme and you felt threatened, report it immediately to your manager and/or HR.)
Don't be afraid to ask for a third party to mediate if you feel that you won't be able to have a calm and constructive discussion.
In the meeting, listen with an open mind. Stay calm, don't get either defensive or aggressive. Walk your colleague through these steps:
- What is the issue?
- Can you give me an example, or specifics?
- What is the impact?
- What would you like to happen instead? What would be a good outcome?
- How can we resolve this? What specifically can we both do?
- And finally: What have we agreed to do?
By keeping your own behavior as positive and constructive as possible you will be working to a resolution, not fueling workplace conflict.
In any workplace conflict there are often two sides. Asking yourself "what contribution am I making to the issue" and being honest in your answer is always a good place to start.
Rosalind Cardinal is The Leadership Alchemist and Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, an Australian consultancy specializing in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organizations. You can interact with Ros, learn more about leadership and management, and download a complimentary copy of her e-guide on leading change at her website.