By Cynthia Clay | Submitted On February 07, 2007
If you’ve ever worked on a team where one or more of the team members are in conflict, then you know just how stressful this situation can be. Left unresolved, conflicts between individuals can fester, spill over into the team’s relationships, and seriously hinder productivity. What’s a team leader to do?
Let’s begin with what not to do.
You may have tried the avoidance technique thinking that the issue will just die down. And perhaps it did…temporarily. But the next time someone on the team experiences similar frustrations, that simmering pot will boil right over.
This is my personal favorite: just demand that the folks in conflict grow up and get over it. Try this tactic and you’ll drive the conflict underground. That results in lots of game playing. I recall a team that I worked on early in my career that had one very unhappy team member and one manager who insisted that she “get over it”. The rest of the team were treated to strange, stealth attacks in which nasty magazine articles mysteriously appeared on our desks, offering advice about cheap nose jobs, eliminating bad breath, and improving personal hygiene.
Tell Them to Work It Out
On the surface this looks like a pretty good course of action: hold them accountable and don’t get involved. Sweet. The problem is that if your team members could have worked it out without your help, they would have done that already. What they need is your guidance to help talk it through and arrive at resolution.
It may seem like the quickest route to resolution is to intervene and crown the winner. There is more than one problem with this approach. First, you remind them of Mom or Dad, so guess who they’ll come to when it’s time to find a judge for the next disagreement? Second, conflict usually isn’t this clear cut. We bring the complexity of our life experiences to the table any time we find we are in conflict.
Since these four approaches won’t work in the long term, let’s look at some underlying principles:
- Any time someone is in conflict, there’s a story to tell about the past.
- An individual’s underlying needs may result in unreasonable demands.
- People in conflict can’t always put their finger on the underlying cause or articulate their needs.
- Unwarranted assumptions are often made and expressed as fact.
- Listening to someone else’s point of view may feel like capitulation.
- As the manager or team leader, the best role you can play is that of a neutral mediator.
Try this approach the next time you have two people on your team in conflict:
- Invite both parties to the table.
- Clarify your role as a neutral facilitator.
- Gain agreement to listen openly to each other.
- Ask each person to tell his or her story about the past, while the other listens without responding.
- Have each person record new information they hear or realizations they have while listening.
- Have each person talk directly to the other person about what they learned that helps them understand the other’s point of view.
- Encourage brainstorming to find possible solutions that meet both people’s needs.
- Develop an action plan with small steps to success.
- Celebrate collaborative action.
Eventually this process can be used by all team members when conflict arises. You won’t be tempted to ignore it, quash it, tell them to work it out, or take sides. The team will experience the long-term gains of developing stronger, deeper relationships with your guidance.
Cynthia Clay is the President/CEO of NetSpeed Leadership (http://netspeedleadership.com). NetSpeed Leadership meets the learning needs of managers, supervisors, and individual contributors in small to mid-sized organizations. Our programs blend interactive instruction techniques with online reinforcement tools to extend learning beyond the classroom. With this holistic approach, our clients quickly launch programs, train participants, reinforce skills, and measure the impact. To learn more about conflict resolution, look at Transforming Team Conflict, one of 23 modules in the Netspeed Leadership training system.
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