Clearing conflict on a team

We call too many things “teams,” just because it sounds good. A group of people is not necessarily a team just because they happen to work in proximity to each other.

What’s a team for?

A team is a small group that has a goal, an end-result that they have accepted as their purpose. So the first thing you should notice when you’re in the presence of a real team is that everyone knows what they’re trying to accomplish. The goal may not be posted in words on the wall (although this is a good idea), but you’ll get the same answer no matter which team member you ask about the goal.

“Small” means not more than 8 people, if everyone has to contribute at the same time in the same place. If there are more than 8, then some of the members will not be heard during discussions.

A team works best when there is diversity – in thinking style, in interaction style, and in problem-solving style. Too much uniformity leads to group-think that is counterproductive in coming up with creative solutions. And when there is diversity, there is also conflict. A successful team must manage conflict.

In the small

Conflict is healthy, as long as it does not lead to lingering bad feelings between individuals on the team. A successful team uses consistent ground rules and processes for dealing with conflict.

Clearing” conflict on a daily basis.

With all of the team members present, one person acts as moderator and invites each team member, one at a time, to address a specific conflict they have with one other team member (only if they need to), using the following three statements:

1. I observed …
2. I felt …
3. I would like to ask you …

For example, suppose that yesterday Yvonne said something negative about Claude’s idea during a discussion in the group. Claude feels he has a conflict with Yvonne because of this. The clearing process might sound like this:

Claude: [observation] “I observed yesterday, when we were discussing the Zinger design, you said, ‘Using a mumblefratz would waste money because it won’t work.”

[feeling] “I felt put down because I’ve spent a lot of time developing mumblefratzes.”

[ask] “I would like to ask you to request more information before you say something won’t work, so the person who developed it has a chance to respond before it’s eliminated from consideration.”

Then Yvonne is invited to respond, first by acknowledging that she has heard and understood the “observation” and the “feeling” parts. This is done by repeating, in her own words, the observation and feeling statements. This part of the process is known as “active listening.”

Once the Claude has acknowledged that he’s been accurately heard, then Yvonne is invited to respond to the “request” part any way she wishes.

So the example might continue like this:

Yvonne: “I heard you say that I said a mumblefratz won’t work; and you felt put down because you worked hard on developing it.”

Claude: “Yes, that’s accurate.”

Yvonne: “OK, I hear you and I’m willing to ask the developer for more information before I cross out a component in the future.”

Claude: “Thank you.”

And that’s it. Now the Claude can continue by addressing another team member, if he feels he has another conflict. Or, if not, the moderator moves on to the next team member and asks if he or she has a conflict to be addressed.

I used this “clearing session” technique in a strategic planning team I was on during a 9-week away-from-the-usual-office marathon. Once we got used to the daily clearing, the team settled into a very productive pace, including developing further ground rules for how we would interact.

In the large

A company – or any enterprise – inherently creates an atmosphere that contributes to or impedes healthy team interactions. This atmosphere is called “culture,” and there are many parts to it. Here are a few indicators of positive culture that will help nurture teams:

Indicator: Managers are accessible, and they listen.
Opposite: Managers use intimidation
Ideal: The manager always is willing to hear the truth, even when it’s not easy

Indicator: The enterprise’s values are explicitly written down, and managers embody those values.
Opposite: Multiple agendas, with some of them hidden
Ideal: There is open discussion of values, and the enterprise’s values do not conflict with any person’s values or morals.

Indicator: The why and how of everything in the enterprise is transparent.
Opposite: There is a glass wall between executives & lower level managers. No one knows why a given person get’s promoted.
Ideal: There is a shared objective of doing what is best for the enterprise and for the people who work there. Information is freely shared, and everyone knows that the people who do the best work get promoted.

Conflict is inevitable in teams and in larger organizations. The goal is not to avoid conflict, but to deal with it in a way that shows respect for everyone involved. Building an enterprise with a healthy culture helps nurture teams. And knowing how to facilitate conflict resolution is valuable for team leaders.


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