We can all agree to a certain extent that even when we seem to be performing well as a team, there are times when different personalities and ways of functioning can generate tensions between some or all of the team members. In this post, we will see how we can resolve a conflict within the team.
Now, what am I referring to when I talk about a conflict?
There is a difference between a conflict and a disagreement:
In a Disagreement, we might have different opinions but we are still able to dissociate ourselves from them and debate them in a courteous and respectful way. We are still open to consider other perspectives and amend our position accordingly.
In a Conflict, there is an additional emotional dimension. In addition to disagreeing, we also feel emotionally attached to or triggered by a specific opinion, solution or belief which adds a layer of tension, strong emotions and a difficulty to detach from our opinion. This often results in an extra tension at the moment of discussing some situations.
The tension in question may be related to strategic issues such as the distribution of work, failure to meet the commitments made by the team or not to deliver work with the same quality standard.
Or, it may have to do with issues that may seem less significant, such as punctuality, the way we communicate among ourselves on a day-to-day basis or simply the fact of someone using their computer during meetings.
In the end, the result is the same: an accumulation of frustration on the part of one or several team members related to the behaviour or position of other members.
Ideally, we should not let the situation reach this point.
Ideally, such disagreements would have been detected and defused the first times it appeared in early meetings, informal interactions or during a retrospective. But sometimes, some of those situations will not get resolved this way and we will have to deal with the resulting emotional charge.
Bellow, I will share some guidelines you can follow to solve these situations and also prevent them from happening in the future.
First of all, we need to create a safe space where everyone involved can express themselves and where we are all explicitly aligned in our intention to resolve the situation, even knowing that the solution might not be an easy one.
It is often very useful to have a facilitator who can moderate the conversation. His main role is to bring in evidence unproductive communication patterns that don’t contribute to the resolution of the situation (such as judgments, lack of respect, avoiding issues, etc.), maintain the conversation centred around the issue we need to solve and unstuck interactions that hit a dead-end.
The objective is that everyone feels free to express themselves without feeling judged by the others.
It is important that people who have accumulated a significant emotional charge can express it by describing the situations and behaviors that bother them, explaining what is happening to them and why they consider this issue important.
In this phase, it is essential not to enter into a discussion to determine what is right and what is not, we are aiming at allowing people to vent their frustrations and to feel they are being listened to.
This won’t be easy. Especially if we are the person who is at the origin of any of those situations or who is having the described behaviour, we will usually feel a very strong drive to explain our point of view or the reasons why we are having the behaviour in question.
We may also feel attacked, have the impression that the point of view being expressed is very polarised or biased, and be tempted to reply with reproaches towards the person speaking by pointing out what we consider to be THEIR responsibility in the matter.
In both cases, it is important to keep our cool and not try to resolve the situation yet. As mentioned before, each person involved, first needs to express their own point of view to discharge the accumulated frustrations. It is important that everyone feels heard and understood so that the rest of the conversation can be productive.
This venting phase will later allow us to be able to talk about the situation in a more reasonable and less emotional way.
When we are letting each person express themselves, we need to make sure that we are listening beyond the words they are using and that, we get to really understand the other person's position.
We can clarify what the person is saying by:
Rephrasing what we understood to make sure that our perception matches what the other person wanted to communicate and give them the opportunity to adjust and clarify their message so that we understand each other better.
If it is not 100% clear, clarify to what situation or to what specific behavior the person is referring to instead of assuming that we already know it.
Ask why it is important for the other person. What important value does he connect it to (respect, empathy, commitment, etc.)? or what impact does he see for himself, the team, the organisation or the client?
Get a more complete picture
It is important that all involved parties can express themselves so we consider all points of view and expand the shared vision we have of the situation.
Each perspective allows us to reach a more global vision and a better understanding of the different nuances of the situation.
It is also the moment to put on the table all the criteria we are using to assess the situation and make sure we do not forget any important criteria.
For example, it is important to consider the values, objectives and sensitivities of each one, but it is also important to take into account the objectives and collaboration agreements of the team, as well as the needs and strategic objectives of the organization and its current context.
Once we have a clearer vision of the situation, it is time to generate ideas to solve it.
In this phase, we are talking about much more than simply brainstorming some ideas and voting for them. We want to define a vision, as clear and as complete as possible, about how we want to function in the future regarding the situation we are discussing. Once we have that, we can define actions.
To be effective in the long term, those actions will have to meet at least these minimum criteria:
It is not enough to have actions such as "I will try to be more aware of it", "I will listen better" or "we will share our work more fairly".
The actions have to define what is really going to be done, when and by whom.
We will have to agree on how we will measure the result and how we will know if we have achieved what we wanted or not.
For example: measure the time spent with certain tasks and have a periodic meeting (or communication by email) to review the results.
The defined actions will have to be integrated in our way of functioning in order to be effective in the long term. It doesn’t help us to make an isolated effort to then return to the same situation as before.
Give it time
Every effort towards a significative change requires a certain time.
This means that we cannot expect the change to be instantaneous. Although it may be possible in some cases, in many others we will have to take into account that an adaptation period will be needed to implement the new behaviors in our routine. It may be the case that we have to break down the changes into smaller stages distributed over time. Or even that we will have to come back to them and re-adjust them in order to make them work.
PREVENT THOSE SITUATIONS IN THE FUTURE:
A final step, is to consider how we have reached the current situation with such a high level of frustration.
What cues were present that we could have paid attention to and that would have allowed us to address the situation earlier?
Which one of them could be a warning sign for us next time so we can act before it is too late?
How did we communicate our frustrations with the situation?
How can we communicate them better next time?
How can we hear them better next time?
What preventive measures do we need to implement in our processes to detect those situations in advance or avoid them altogether?
Of course, each team is a complex system. And human relations, especially under pressure, are not always predictable (we are no simple machines) but the steps that we discussed have been successfully used to resolve several conflicts in various teams.
I invite you to try them and let me know how it worked for you. I would love to hear back from you :-)