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Techniques to Handle Team Conflict

Posted on: 30/06/2009

Team conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to cause trouble. With the right techniques, team members can get back on track before relationships are damaged and productivity plummets.

“Avoiding conflict at all costs does not work and will undermine a team’s effectiveness. In fact, in an environment of trust and constructive communication, conflict can help teams solve problems and meet serious challenges,” says Craig Runde, co-author with Tim Flanagan of Building Conflict Competent Teams. “But making constructive choices, especially when tensions are high, is not always easy.”

Runde and Flanagan advise teams on long-term strategies for establishing the right climate and using constructive communication. For times when more immediate remedies are needed, the authors suggest a variety of techniques — for use before, during and after a conflict flares up.

Before a conflict

 Set team agreements. Many high-performing teams establish norms, operating principals, rules of interaction, team values, meeting procedures and other ground rules for how they will interact with one another. This provides a foundation for the group when the going gets tough.

Use structured disclosure. Take time to share views, thoughts, perspectives and experiences. Discussion and sharing can strengthen relationships and build trust, which helps the team to face conflict constructively when it occurs. One way to do this is to have each teammate disclose something interesting or unique about himself that nobody else in the room knows. “It may be interesting or entertaining, but as teammates share, new connections are made and respect grows,” says Flanagan.

 Predict hot topics. Are there topics or issues that are off limits for the team to discuss? Acknowledge issues that are ignored and hold potential for conflict. Find ways to surface hot topics and give the team greater control over how and when they address issues.

Describe desired outcomes. How a discussion or topic is set up has a lot to do with how the conversation goes. Begin discussions or meetings by clearly describing the desired outcomes for the session. Is your goal to discuss options or decide on a course of action? “This is a great tip for holding more effective meetings and teams that do this find it easier to stay focused, assess their progress and reduce misunderstandings, ” Flanagan explains.
Share perspectives — quickly. Have all members of the team quickly and concisely state their starting views — without interruption or debate by others. All members of the team get to weigh in before debate and discussion begin. This creates a shared awareness of the differences and similarities among team members, gets more views out in the open and reduces assumptions.

 

During the conflict
 

Summer before fall. The name of this technique is a play on words. It refers to the process of summarizing another’s view before falling into an explanation of one’s own view. Any team member can initiate this by simply asking teammates to summarize another’s position, feeling or idea before making a point.

Devil’s advocacy. A tried-and-true element of problem solving, this technique requires the conflict partners to literally argue for their opponent’s position, feelings and ideas. The act of playing devil’s advocate helps to break through opposing hard-and-fast positions among teammates.

Time-out. Teams can take a collective time-out when they encounter obstacles and challenges that stir up emotional responses and destructive behavior. In the middle of a conflict, a time-out can serve several purposes: It allows people to escape the heat of the moment; frustration and personal stress will ease; team members have a chance to reflect, reconsider and regroup. With emotions stabilized, the team can re-engage and return to the work at hand.
 

Reframing. When the team is stuck in conflict, well-timed questions can reframe the situation and allow new thinking to emerge. Questions could be about the topic, process, assumptions or progress of the team, such as: Are there more than just these two alternatives? Can you help me understand why? What if we found our assumptions to be in error? What can we do to break the stalemate?

 

After the conflict

Use peer feedback. Teams performing at the highest levels integrate ongoing feedback among members as part of their routine communication. Ongoing, integrated team feedback is a high standard, but teams will benefit from effectively giving periodic peer feedback. Runde and Flanagan teach a feedback model that is also used by CCL – the Situation-Behavior- Impact (SBI) approach.

Whenever conflicts begin to take a toll, these techniques can help team members regain control, refocus their energy and begin to reestablish the climate and communication necessary to fuel continued development and success.

Trouble on the Team

Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, authors of Building Conflict Competent Teams, offer answers to common conflict questions.

Q: Our team appears to get along, but a lot of gossip and arguing goes on behind the scenes. How can we get this conflict out in the open?

A: When conflict isn’t addressed as a team, it goes underground or is used to create “sides” or factions. This means there isn’t true trust and safety on the team. Teams need to try to rebuild trust and good communication. A key step is to keep disagreements focused on the task or topic and not on relationship conflict or old history.

Q: Are there any national cultural differences in how people deal with conflict?

A: Conflict is handled differently by various cultures and may include the degree to which people talk directly or indirectly about the conflict as well as whether they are emotionally expressive or reserved. Each culture’s approaches typically work very well when used by people from that culture. If you’re outside that culture, try to understand the different approaches, respect them as authentic and use perspective- taking to try to understand how other people see the conflict.

Q: What happens when you try to work through conflict but someone continues to hold a grudge?

A: That person will probably eventually “grudge” themselves out of a job. Holding grudges leads to retaliation, hiding emotions or demeaning others. The only solution is to get the grudge-holder and management to discuss the issues openly.

 

Courtesy : Ramachandran Mahadevan

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