When team members are asked if they think that conflict is inevitable in team settings, they almost always answer - yes. When they are asked whether their team has a process in place for managing this inevitable conflict, they usually answer – no. As a result they often default to gut level instincts for managing conflict and almost always wind up with poor outcomes. What’s a team to do?
In order to manage conflict effectively, team members need to be able to have open and honest discussion about their issues. Creating an environment or climate where people are able to have this free flowing type of conversation becomes an essential element in addressing team conflict. It can be a challenge but one that is worth the time and effort.
Elements of the Right Climate
In their book, Building Conflict Competent Teams, authors Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan identified several components of creating the right climate for team conflict. These include developing positive attitudes towards conflict, creating a sense of trust and safety, fostering behavioral integration, and enhancing team emotional intelligence.
People generally see conflict as something negative to be avoided. This attitude can cause people to avoid dealing with conflicts which in turn usually results in them festering and growing over time. When people are asked if they have ever had a positive outcome from conflict, they usually admit that they have and are able to name some of the elements that contributed to this outcome. Helping people recognize the potential upsides of conflict is a first step in creating an effective climate.
When people are concerned about trust and when they that others might use what they say against them, communication naturally becomes more cautious and timid. For teams that wish to manage conflict well, it is essential to establish a sense of mutual trust and psychological safety among team members. It may be impossible to legislate trust but a team can certainly take steps to make sure that team members do not use what their colleagues say in retaliatory ways. Breaches of trust need to be addressed immediately for people might forgive one breach but they will rarely, if ever, forgive a second one. When team members work closely together, share information, and focus on team reward systems, they develop a sense of “teamness.” This process, which is called behavioral integration, helps team members sense that they are all in things together. It enables them to give their teammates the benefit of the doubt when issues arise, which gives them more time to understand their differences and develop collaborative solutions.
Conflict is all about emotions. In teams it is particularly important to manage emotions associated with conflict because unless they are addressed there is a significant chance of the negative emotions becoming contagious and affecting the well being of the whole team. Marcia Hughes and James Terrell in The Emotionally Intelligent Team provide excellent approaches for measuring the emotional climate of a team. While they lie beyond the scope of this article, the book also provides a number of helpful approaches for improving the emotional intelligence of the team which, in turn, can help the team weather bouts of conflicts more effectively.