Tension in teams: how to minimize the bad and maximize the good

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Conflict within teams is inevitable. And that’s a good thing, because it’s also essential to the creative collaboration that is a team’s raison d’etre. Without differences of opinion, there can be no debate about important issues nor synthesis of ideas.

How can you, as the team leader, manage conflict to get the best out of your team?

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FIRST, SET A FEW GROUND RULES

One of the keys to managing conflict in teams is to set up ground rules in advance. “It’s not my experience that chaos inherently results in brilliance,” says Stever Robbins, a Cambridge, Mass.-based executive coach. Instead, it’s a good idea to set guidelines to help work through disagreements.

The most important rule: Conflict should be handled openly. “Give them two options: confront the conflict and handle it, or let it go,” says Howard Guttman, principal of Guttman Development Strategies, Inc. (Ledgewood, N.J.). “Those are the only two acceptable options. Lobbying around the water cooler and sending scud missiles by e-mail should be verboten.”

In most cases conflicts should be addressed directly. “As soon as I notice something, I get it on the table and address it directly,” says Morris R. Shechtman, former chairman of the Shechtman Group (Kalispell, Mont.).

And when the feedback raises tempers, don’t always rush to cool things down. “Stay with the tension,” says Paul Hennessey, executive vice president of marketing, research and development at BayGroup International, a consulting and training firm in Larkspur, Calif. “It’s much more likely that innovative solutions will emerge.”

Jeff Weiss, a partner at Boston, Mass.-based Vantage Partners LLC, suggests that teams brainstorm in the beginning to come up with worst-case scenarios and strategies for how to deal with them.

Some of these scenarios include:

— A decision has to be made immediately and there’s no time for the whole team to come together for discussion: Who should make the call?

— A crisis that affects one or more team members in their work outside the team: Should the team forge ahead on its work without the missing member(s) or not?

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BUILD COHESION AND TRUST

Well-defined procedural rules not only help the team cope with surprises, but they also build trust. When everyone on the team understands who’s empowered to make decisions for the team under what circumstances, it’s less likely that someone will feel undermined or overlooked when unusual circumstances arise.

It’s also easier to manage conflict when the team members know each other on a personal level. Ask each one to give a three-minute personal and professional update at the beginning of meetings.

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STICK TO THE FACTS

One good way to keep conflict productive and impersonal is to focus on the facts. “The reason conflict happens is that people have the same data and interpret it differently, or they have different data in the first place,” says Robbins.

So help the team members in conflict explore what happened. Don’t go on assumptions, but rather paraphrase what each person is saying. That simple exercise can clear up misconceptions and make conversation partners more open to the other side of the story, says Hennessey.

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LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Model the behavior you would like others on your team to exhibit in the face of conflict:

— Practice full disclosure.

In an argument or discussion, team members should reveal all of their arguments and make it clear why they have taken a particular position. This behavior should start at the top.

— Look at conflict as a learning experience.

“Encourage an exploration of the causes of the failure and what could be changed next time. Make the process remedial rather than punitive. If you set a solution orientation, you’re saying to people, ‘Even if one person is right and the other wrong, the reality is that this is just about learning,”‘ says Robbins.

— Be more seen than heard.

“The leader’s listening-to-telling ratio should be 90:10,” says Shechtman. Instead of making decisions, facilitate them. When you do speak up, restate team members’ arguments and positions and encourage people in disagreement to do the same.

— Intercede when it turns personal.

When conflict between team members does get personal, it’s time to get involved. “As a team leader, I might facilitate a conversation if it’s taking a long time to get to a resolution. I will spend time with each party to figure out what is making it so difficult for them, to give them a different angle on the problem,” says Weiss. If that doesn’t work, the best choice may be to find a mediator who has no stake in the outcome.

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Once team members learn to handle difficulties themselves, they’ll work out conflicts more efficiently and constructively, so that they ultimately contribute to the team’s creative work.

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(Jim Kling is a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash.)