Sunday, May 13, 2012

Four Steps to Diffusing Team Conflict

It's common for organizations today to work in teams and it's natural, when you bring individuals of varying backgrounds, goals and opinions together, for those teams to experience conflict. There are two types of conflict: dysfunctional and functional. Most people see conflict as dysfunctional and something to avoid, but really, what kind of conflict you have depends on how you handle it. I like to look on conflict as an opportunity for increased productivity, greater innovation, maximized performance, and team strengthening.

There are several steps you can take to diffuse team conflict, which will result in stronger relationships and team performance.

  1. Set the Stage

    Find a neutral location for the affected individuals to meet. I often include all members of the team when it's small because I have found there is usually spillover to the team members not directly involved with the conflict, which means they have a stake in the resolution. Also, be sure the individuals in conflict want to resolve their differences. It doesn't do anyone any good to go to all this effort if one of the parties has no interest in finding a solution. You may also want to set down some guidelines for the interactions as conflict resolution can become heated. If you don't set down any other guidelines, ensure that all parties understand that they must respect one another and the opinions voiced.

  2. Explore the Conflict

    Have each team member express his or her views on the situation. This serves dual purposes – it gets the feelings and concerns out in the open and it weakens the force of emotions behind the conflict. This allows the team members to begin to actually hear and consider what their co-workers are saying, rather than being distracted by the emotion behind the words.

  3. Generate Solution Options

    Have the team members brainstorm ideas for how to solve the conflict or reach a point of compromise. Remind them that this resolution must focus not only on the individuals involved but also be relative to the team goals and objectives. Also, keep them focused. Don't let the team members devolve into the blame game. Keep them looking forward and planning for their success. You may find several solutions offered, or only one, but either way you must get all involved parties to agree on a single best solution. Discuss the pros and cons and get everyone's buy-in. Remember, you can't make everyone happy all of the time, but you can at least get everyone to agree, although it may be begrudgingly.

  4. Implement the Solution

    Put the solution into place. This isn't the end, though. You need to evaluate the solution and ensure it's achieving the desired outcome. If it is – celebrate! If it's not, you get to call your team together, go back to step 3, and discuss the the selected solution isn't working and choose a new option.

Of course, the steps discussed here are for a long-term solution. You may be in a situation where you need to slap a bandaid on the problem until you have time to deal with it more effectively. If that's the case, I have a few thoughts on that as well.

The Quick Fixes

Acting – Simply tell the team what the solution will be and get on with the project. This is a very authoritarian approach and should only be used in times of emergency and high emotion when almost any decision will be unpopular. Remember to consider the fallout and deliver the resolution with complete confidence.

Compromising – This often involves an objective third party who hears all sides of the conflict then offers a solution that is an effective compromise. This works best when the issue is complex and a quick temporary solution is needed.

Accommodating – Sometimes one of the parties is right or has more at stake than the other or others. In that case you need to get the other individuals to see the first's point of view and convince them the appropriate thing to do is give in. This requires sacrifice, but it will be rewarded in the long run.

Avoiding – Sometimes an issue simply isn't that important, is only a symptom of a larger issue or will take care of itself over time. In that case, it's a safe option to just leave it alone, but explain to your team what you're doing and, if you plan to address it in the future, when you'll deal with the larger issue. The key decision-making factor here is to ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that will happen if I do nothing?"

Wrapping It Up

Differences cause negative emotions, which in turn, negatively affect workplace productivity. The key to defusing conflicts is open communication delivered with respect and honesty. Differences should be addressed as quickly as possible because the chasm will only widen with time. By acting quickly, you will have a lesser conflict and smaller differences to resolve. This means you can get back to the business of meeting the team and company goals more quickly.

For more information on managing team conflict please see the following links:

Resolving Team Conflict - Mind Tools
Resolve Team Conflict in the Workplace: Free Conflict Resolution Guide - Dale Carnegie
Effectively Managing Team Conflict - Global Knowledge


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