Reflection: Team Conflict a Necessary Evil

How to Manage Team Conflict When it is a Necessary Evil

Team conflict, a normal part of being part of a team some would say.  They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; however, the depth of the conflict and nature is important to understand.  A team is usually classed as a small group of individuals who are aiming towards a common goal synergistically.  It is this synergy that sets a team apart from a group. Within the team, individuals need to be able to trust and rely upon another’s output to perform their part.  Trust is a key component to a successful team; the journey, however, can be fraught and testing.  In his work on teams, Peter Lencioni places trust at the bottom of his team triangle as the foundation towards high performance.  During the formative stages, conflict appears seemingly quickly, this is the necessary evil that leaders are required to manage.
Let us take a trip back to another familiar model produced by Bruce Tuckman.  This 1965 model is well known and well used probably still today.  In Tuckman’s model we see conflict at stage two, ‘storming’.  While an old model, it was well researched and highly publicised.  It again points to the fact that conflict will appear at some point in team development, again at stage two.  How does this help leaders and team managers?  It shows that at some stage if teams are developed and time is taken to focus on this, conflict will appear.  This should be viewed as a positive as the team move through the stages, how leaders handle this is an important aspect.  Too often leaders shy away and want to return to the ‘nice’ stage where everyone got on. Interestingly, teams do perform in the first stage, so why would we invite conflict?

Two businessmen talking while writing down notes at a wooden table

Too often leaders shy away and want to return to the ‘nice’ stage where everyone got on.

Conflict…Defending Personal Values

According to relationship theory, conflict appears when our personal values are attacked.  We change our behaviour accordingly to defend those values.  During conflict, individual behaviour usually changes from the norm.  In some instances, people will seek to understand, some will look for harmony and some will become animated.  The basics of conflict see people change behaviour and this is the point the manager can observe and help.  Conflict is used as a defence to help us get back to our normal way of behaving. This is how we are when things are going well. If conflict is not managed properly, conflict behaviour can deepen in a further attempt to defend our values. At this point, conflict has gone too far and can be damaging so intervention is essential. The base level of conflict is inevitable, no team escapes it. How we manage it is critical.

Same Point, Different Perspective

When conflict arises, it is important to understand the issue and perspectives.  There is a point where creativity could be encouraged as you have a number of people with different perspectives.  This, if managed correctly, is an opportunity to capture some great ideas and best practice.  Dialogue and identifying the conflict will aid on a number of levels.  By openly saying ‘we have a point of conflict’, it is shared in a respectful way.  At this point, it is right for both parties to state their cases in a safe space.  Once the conflict has dissipated, we have an opportunity to explore the perspectives and work toward the solution.  The fact remains that two or more people are invested in an output, putting forward their way of working.  This investment is to be celebrated, it shows people care and this is worth the time taken to resolve the conflict.

Black pawn lineup up together with the white pawns along the chessboard

When conflict arises, it is important to understand the issue and perspectives.

The basis of conflict can show a lack of understanding in another’s perspective.  There are tools that can be deployed to seek to understand.  Working preference tools such as Belbin will aid in providing some view of the individual.  For a view of personality, Myers Briggs and HBDI are common and easily sourced.  For a deeper look at motivational value systems and a view of conflict behaviour, the Strengths Deployment Inventory is available.  These kind of development tools are exactly that, developmental.  If deployed correctly, it will provide a deeper understanding of our approach to problems and also our working preferences.  Within this, it is hoped, there will be a common understanding of each other and to some point, an acceptance.  At this point we can look to be reflective, to consider past transactions with a motivation to understand.

Don’t Avoid Team Conflict

Whether you employ these tools or nor, leaders have a key part to play here in the early stages of team development.  Eddie Obeng in his book Perfect Projects, states the most important element, in the beginning, is team development.  If this doesn’t happen, you will encounter bigger problems down the line.  These problems could have potentially been resolved through understanding each other at the outset.  This is not to say that conflict will be avoided, on the contrary.  It may invite more conflict and quicker.  Leaders have an opportunity here when conflict arises to consider the why and individual behaviour.  The leader can take charge ensuring this does not get personal and that conflict is focussed on the problem and solution.  By stepping in at the right time and not avoiding conflict, leaders can build on the experience.

Managed Team Conflict=Opportunity

Ground rules and setting them early can aid in managing the conflict.  An example of this, certainly in the forming stages, is to invite parties experiencing conflict to openly discuss it.  Facilitated well, there may be a point that a more creative solution appears.  Let’s be realistic, maybe not, however, this does create a safe space to openly or privately discuss the conflict.  This can take the heat out of a situation as well as allow the individuals to show dignity and respect to each other.  Conflict can come from a point of genuine care and wanting to do a great job.  When we value that in people and allow open discussion conflict can be a positive.  Ignoring conflict or brushing it off as a tiff or advising people to ‘get over it’ is hiding the problem.  While a necessary evil, conflict is also an opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Conflict can be ugly especially when it is personal and this can happen within teams due to proximity and the focus on the goal. Herein lays the potential problem, the focus on the goal, the eagerness to get going.  Albert Einstein had a unique approach to problems.  If there was an hour to solve it, 55 mins are spent on the problem and 5 on the solution.  If we spend time on the development of the team and our approach, the solutions will come.  Realistically, there will be some changes in processes as they grow together, this shows a certain maturity.  As a result of this, conflict also changes.  Disagreements should be welcomed and expected as differing perspectives are a good thing.
When managed well, people don’t fear conflict, especially when dignity and respect are at the heart of the team.

For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Conflict Resolution SkillsAlso, check out our award-winning blog to see more conflict management tips and articles.

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