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.
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.''
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.''
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.
Confrontations can also occur when team members have disagreements about substantive issues or overall strategy. In the Collins meeting, the parties confronted each other over substantive issues like immigration policy and the federal budget. Since the purpose of a team is usually to receive input from different perspectives, this type of conflict is inevitable. Team leaders can turn these strategy disputes into positive discussions by refocusing on the root cause of the difference of opinion. To do this, a team leader should use the team forum to hear the arguments of both individuals. It often helps to have some third-party input from the rest of the team, and it also allows the team leader to determine if the difference of opinion is the result of incorrect assumptions or a failure to remain focused on the team's deliverable.
There are a number of reasons that confrontations and verbal attacks occur within a team. Team leaders have a responsibility to address these conflicts in a way that acknowledges the concerns, but re-directs the discussions to achieve a positive outcome.
Verbal attacks often inappropriately impute negative motivations to other team members. This occurs when a team member makes statements or inferences that accuse someone of acting in bad faith. Team leaders cannot permit this and must stop the attack by calling a timeout.
A personality clash occurs when two individuals have wide differences in how they think and act. Team leaders can mitigate this situation by regaining control of the room or avoiding unnecessary situations in which the conflict may boil over.
When confrontation is the result of disagreement on strategy or tactics, a team leader can de-escalate by listening carefully to the positions of each party. Sometimes such discussions should take place with the entire team present in order to capture other outside input.
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