Responding to Confrontations & Verbal Attacks on Work Teams

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Conflict in a team is unavoidable, but confrontation and verbal attacks are an inappropriate way to express differences. This lesson explores practical ways team leaders can transform confrontation into cooperation.

Team Conflict and a Talking Stick

In early 2018, a team of U.S. lawmakers was working together in an effort to reach a deal on government spending. The current government spending authorization had expired, and the government would close until an agreement was reached. Maine Senator Susan Collins invited the team to a closed-door meeting in her office in an attempt to hash out a deal.

Collins insisted that the team participants agree to one rule: No talking unless you were holding the ''talking stick''. A bit silly? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely! By restricting the speaking to the person holding the stick, every voice was heard in silence and without interruption. One of the team's leaders, Senator Dick Durbin, said of the strategy, ''What I have seen here ... in the last few days is something we have not seen for years: constructive, bipartisan conversation.''

A talking stick was used by Native Americans to ensure that all voices were heard respectfully and without interruption.

Using Team Conflict to Improve Outcomes

When an organization forms a work team, the purpose is usually based on the need to have input from a variety of stakeholders and subject matter experts. Despite good intentions, conflict within a team is inevitable. The question is not whether conflict will occur, but how the team and its leaders will transform conflict into something constructive. Let's look at some of the most common reasons that disagreements escalate, and explore some ways team leaders can intervene.

Trust, Motivation, and Transparency

When Collins invited the team of senators to her office for discussions, a lack of trust was a key problem. Almost a year of poor or non-existent communication had resulted in lots of assumptions about the other side's positions and their reasoning. The same dynamic also causes confrontations in work teams. Most of us feel strongly about the need for truth and transparency.

Team leaders have an important role in rejecting assaults on personal integrity and refocusing the discussion toward material disagreements of a business (rather than personal) nature. It's perfectly OK for the members of a team to disagree - even passionately disagree. It's not OK to impute thoughts, feelings, or motives to others on the team. Imputing a characteristic to someone on the team means presenting as a fact something that is actually only an assumption about their feelings or motives. Here's an example:

''I can't work with Jim. He hates the IT department, he hates the facilities team, and he could not care less about whether his laziness makes more work for us.''

In this statement, the speaker is making a verbal attack on Jim that focuses on his motives rather than his conduct. The speaker here has accused Jim of being spiteful and lazy. A good team leader calls a timeout immediately. In doing so, the team leader is taking back the floor for the purpose of redirecting that comment and re-framing it into a constructive suggestion instead of a verbal attack. The team leader might suggest to the speaker that a more appropriate statement would be something like:

''For this to work, we will need better communication and a strong, positive relationship between Jim and the supporting departments. Specifically, we need to make sure there is a clear understanding about how Jim's project impacts other departments in the company.''

Team leaders are responsible for turning verbal attacks into constructive discussions.

Personality Conflicts

A second common cause of confrontations within teams is the ever-present personality clash. Personality clashes occur when two members of a work team have substantially different ways of behaving or speaking. During the meeting in Collins' office, there was a half-funny, half-angry moment when the senator with the talking stick was interrupted by another senator. Frustrated with this interruption, the speaking senator ''forcefully delivered'' the stick to his out-of-order colleague.

When personalities clash, like they did when the talking stick was tossed across the room, team leaders can respond in a few different ways. One option is to forcefully regain control of the room and direct both parties to get back on track. A second option is to accommodate the differences by reducing the degree to which the team members have occasion to engage each other.

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