Conflict is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can often be a healthy sign of a team that is good at surfacing differences. A lack of conflict is often a warning sign that the team isnt addressing the truly critical issues or that people dont feel free to voice their opinions. In a complex world, smart people can and should disagree about the best course of action.
Still, most teams avoid task conflicts because they so often deteriorate into interpersonal conflict. Once conflict becomes personal it becomes increasingly difficult to have productive discussions or effectively resolve complex issues.
Conflict is often blamed on individuals, but is usually driven by the larger team dynamic. I find that identifying and addressing that larger dynamic is the turning point in resolving most conflicts.
The most noticeable outcome is an end to the pain and anxiety. By the time the manager has gone to the trouble of finding outside help, the situation has usually come to a crisis point. Often someone is threatening to quit and an inordinate amount of time has been diverted from real work to managing the conflict.
Sometimes reducing the pain is all that can be hoped for, but often much more is possible. Working relationships can be rebuilt I dont promise that people will become best friends although I have seen that happen! but it is often possible to restore trust and respect and generally improve the quality of the working relationship.
Individuals improve their skill at handling differences. I teach the individuals a process for resolving their conflict. These new skills and the experience of resolving a situation that had seemed hopeless often changes their whole outlook on conflict and increases their confidence that difficult issues can be resolved. They no longer let things fester and instead take responsibility for confronting problems early on.
Frequently, the entire team benefits. A team is a system and pain in one part of a system almost always impacts the whole. Issues that were once avoided for fear of stirring up conflict can now be openly addressed and resolved.
How I Work
Im often brought in by the manager of two people who are in conflict. I meet first with the manager to understand the context in which the conflict is occurring and how it is impacting the whole team. I also want to know what outcome the manager is looking for and what the consequences will be for the individuals involved if they cant resolve the conflict. Well also discuss ground rules such as confidentiality I wont share details of my meetings with the individuals without their explicit permission. A final purpose of this first meeting is to set some expectations I tell the manager that well finish the process with a report out and that he needs to be prepared to hear feedback on what he does that contributes to the conflict every manager, no matter how good, plays a role in any conflict between direct reports. I also tell the manager that it is not uncommon for this process to identify some team issues that need to be addressed.
The next step is to meet separately with the individuals in conflict. I want to understand each view point and I also want to give the individuals an opportunity to learn about the process I use and get comfortable with it. I tell them that they have a choice they dont have to participate in the process and they dont have to work with me. Im always prepared to find someone else to work on the problem if any of the participants are uncomfortable with me.
In the one-on-one meetings we work on clarifying what the individual wants as an outcome. What do they need to be able to move on from the conflict? What do they think the other person needs? I ask each individual to think about what they might be doing that adds to the problem. In this one-on-one we also talk about what will happen in the joint session, what theyre worried about, what they can do to make the meeting productive, and what they can expect from me.
I then meet with the individuals in a series of joint sessions. A few conflicts can be resolved in one meeting, but most take several sessions. The structure of these sessions depends on the issues and the individuals involved. We often start by having each person share what a good outcome would look like. They then share what is bothering them and start to talk through what they want from each other.
In some ways this is a facilitated negotiation. Unlike a business negotiation, the individuals often arent entirely clear on what they want. The individual sessions are focused on clarifying that. In the joint sessions Im there to help them hear what the other wants and to engage in some creative problem solving. I make sure they really understand and acknowledge what is bothering the other person. Im also there to keep them honest. Many people just want the meeting to be over and will agree to do things that arent realistic. I push back on them: "Do you really think you can keep the irritation out of your voice when you disagree with a proposal John is making?" I also push them to be very specific on what they expect of each other: "What do you mean by I promise to be more responsive? Does that mean youll return e-mail in 2 hours or 2 days?" And finally, I point out that changing behavior is never an easy task and that they are both likely to violate the agreement from time to time, not out of bad intent, but just because they are human. I have them work out a procedure for handling "violations".
In the course of the meetings the individuals are learning some basic conflict resolution skills that they can use in other situations. They learn how to bring up difficult issues in a way that doesnt make the other defensive. They learn some simple tools and processes for sorting out the issues. They also learn that acknowledging the other perspective doesnt cancel out their own experience.
We also look at outside forces that may be driving the conflict. Does their compensation plan discourage cooperation? Are team meetings poorly run so that no one knows when a decision has been made or what has been decided? It is quite common to find that something systemic in the team or the larger organization that contributes to the situation. These are issues that may be outside their control and will have to be raised with their manager.
Our final step is to plan the report out to the manager. At the end of each session I have them mutually agree on what I can report to the boss about the progress we are (or arent!) making. At the end of our final session we plan what we will say in the report out. I encourage them to share at least a high level summary of what the problem was and what they will be doing differently in the future. They also agree on what they need from the boss going forward.
At the report out I let the individuals do most of the talking. The discussion is another mini-negotiation around what the individuals want from the manager, what the manager can agree to and what he wants from them. Were not done until everyone is satisfied that the situation is resolved.
I use a different approach when an entire team is in conflict over a business decision. For an example of how I help teams get consensus on the tough issues, click on the case study link below.