5 myths dispelled about managing conflict in teams

Over (many!) years I’ve worked with people and teams of all shapes, sizes and levels and there is one perennial topic that seems to prevail. Conflict. If left unattended, it can at best hold back team potential and at worst, result in irrecoverable loss of business and failed personal relationships.

In this blog, I share insights from my experiences of managing conflict situations both personal and business, for individuals and teams, so it may provide some insight and perspective towards solving a conflict you may be facing. After all, conflict effectively navigated is what strong teams are made of, and how high performance is achieved.

So what is conflict, why are some people comfortable with it and why are some people frightened of it? Perhaps, more importantly, how can we benefit from it?

Conflict is a situation, not a person

Conflict arises between people from perceptions and expectations about situations. It evolves because we change our minds, have different opinions and we hold our views and opinions dear because we base our lives, successes and failures on those views and beliefs.

So naturally, it’s in times of change that conflicts arise, particularly because expectations of the change are framed by our own experience of the world. We then consider other views as ‘wrong’ because our view of the world is that ours is ‘right’ and we decide, based on those views, what ‘should’ happen.

Nothing synergistic comes from dogmatic approaches.

I remove the word ‘should’ from as much dialogue as I can, generally. I replace it with ‘could’. Once we think about what we ‘could’ do, we start to think in terms of the options available. It changes the tone of the dialogue to possibilities, and that way we’re more likely to be listening for solutions than asserting our way as the right way.

So, notice your ‘shoulds’ and replace ‘should and should not’ with ‘could’? The dialogue can then naturally become more exploratory and inclusive. Then conflict can become a platform for establishing new ways of working.

“I can’t say that, it’s rude!”

We have a rule in our house to always tell the truth. As young children, we are born with this innate gift and in many cases, the directness of small children can create a lighter feel (often hilarity!) when pointing out an ‘elephant in the room’. Laughter really is the best of healers.

I’m not suggesting that a great way to handle conflict is to simply blurt out your view of a situation, it’s important to respect others. However, I have met many people who gossip about a person or situation when they aren’t present to respond, yet who also believe that simply being honest wouldn’t be polite.

So, choose a response that is helpful. Find someone to help you get clear about what your problem or situation is. Get some perspective. Then find the words you need to be diplomatic enough, but clear enough, so the message can be heard, understood and then solutions worked out with the person or people who can do something about it. I think this is far more respectful and constructive than avoidance and means a stronger chance of resolution in the long run.

The presenting issue often isn’t the issue

I have observed, and learned myself, from many situations, that interpretations assigned to actions and behaviours are later proved inaccurate simply due to being discussed.

Although I accept it does happen sometimes, I find it’s unusual for people to offend or cause a problem on purpose. There is usually some kind of explanation, and once we understand that, we can exercise empathy in the situation and in reaching a solution.

I also know that many a strong relationship has been formed for life, based on the effective exploration of a presenting conflict. Sometimes, just taking the time to see another view is all it takes t find new ground.

I’ve said what the problem is so I’ve done my bit

Steven Covey, in his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ says “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Whilst many people can quote this and agree with it, implementing this approach takes dedication, commitment, empathy, practice and strong underpinning enquiry and listening skills. Now there’s a list!

Ultimately, it involves owning the situation and making a commitment to find a way to communicate well, no matter what the conversation reveals. Courage to raise the topic is important, but it’s not enough on its own.

Conflict should be avoided

The opposing view is conflict should always be faced.

Both are common misconceptions. Both, you’ll notice, contain the word ‘should’.

Overall, conflict isn’t comfortable. As human beings, we’re social animals and even those that won’t openly admit it, enjoy feeling liked, valued, appreciated in some way. Conflict threatens that feeling and so I have witnessed one of these two reactions.

If it’s stopping something important, it’s harmful in some way or it’s obvious to others, then it makes more sense to find a way to address it. However, if it’s something that is unlikely to change, that is simply irritating, then the chances are we have a judgement and a ‘should’ about the situation. This means the work that needs to be done is in accepting that we’re all different, we have different ideas and that maybe it’s time to let go of this one. It’s not always that simple, of course, so I advocate that we do what we need to do to make our peace with it. Do some exercise, go for a walk, read, sit, wonder, whatever. Own your part of the problem and commit to not returning your attention to it anymore and find something new to focus on, that’s a more positive use of your energy.

Connecting the dots

Understanding what causes conflict, deciding whether we need to face it or not and then finding the courage to tackle it, are all very important. There is another thing to consider though, and that’s the fact that people have different preferred styles for handling conflict that can also complicate matters.

We work with a range of different personality profiles and tools to help people understand themselves and each other. Some of our favourites are the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the Thomas Kilburn model and DISC.

To find out more about what we do and how we might be able to help you achieve your goals through your people, get in touch or visit our Leadership Development or Organisation Design pages. You can also receive information, hints and tips direct to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.