Research suggests that front-line supervisors spend almost 50% of their workday managing conflicts. I’m not surprised, given our human tendency toward disagreement and the brain’s built in negativity bias (Hansen, 2011). And, since most of us have a strong distaste for conflict, leaders are valuable when they know what actions will re-balance the team.
Here are four common causes of workplace conflict and ideas for how to intervene.
I don’t really like you
We are often irritated in the workplace by the extra energy it takes to work with others who are not like us, or who we don’t easily understand. The struggle to communicate and get on the same page so we can co-operate and coordinate takes its toll. While we may also have personality clashes with family and friends, sometimes our affection for them smoothes out misunderstandings. Not so in the workplace. The cure, then, is to experience the fun, synergy and productiveness of a diverse team. Leaders should create diverse teams, and give them a task that is not business critical. Or use the diversity to examine a business issue from many different angles. Another way to increase space for differences is to examine real-life experiences with team-building exercises that are designed to highlight how we are all different – and similar. Tools like Personality Dimensions ™ and Myers Briggs Type Indicator™ are useful discussion starters.
It’s the time of the season
Remember that most group development theories show a dip in productivity (a “storming” phase) which normally follows an initial period of politeness and stability. This time of upheaval happens naturally as team members become concerned about their influence, position and power in the group. Symptoms include the creation of alliances or clichés, inability to reach consensus, and mutiny of the leader. Sometimes, a group member is attacked for verbalizing what others are also feeling. Removing the scapegoat from the team (and often they leave on their own because of group pressure) only shoves the group back to the earlier polite stage.
Instead, help the group understand that the discomfort they are feeling is normal. Tell stories of other groups you have seen through this stage. Be a leader who doesn’t take it personally. Create time in meetings for dialogue and a healthy exploration of the group’s ways of problem solving and decision-making. Highlight how each distinct member of the team is a valuable contributor. All this will facilitate movement through this stage of group development, to the more pleasant and productive next phase. An outside coach, for the leader or the team, can provide observation and enough support to help retain team members or stop the collapse of the team.
I’m just not myself today
Let’s not underestimate the effect of stress on teams. If your group is in the midst of a system conversion, if the volume of work has suddenly increased or dropped off, if your organization is constantly restructuring – any time the amount and speed of change is high – expect team conflict. Everyone has a whole life outside of work, and many of our stresses are private but pervasive. People under stress often act in ways that are uncommon – in fact, they may be using their least preferred functions when out of their comfort zone. This behaviour feels strange even to them, and it can alienate and surprise others. A leader needs to be patient with individuals, while firmly reminding the group of acceptable workplace behaviours. Tell people what you observe in them and ask them what they need from you to work more like themselves. See if you can buffer the stress for the team by regulating or slowing the pace of change. Introduce new ways the team can influence their environment, and pay attention to the anchors (often values and vision) that can create stability during change.
Leader, maybe it’s you
There are many ways that a leader can inadvertently cause team conflict, and in most cases the team won’t point it out. They may even believe you are manipulating them on purpose! A leader whose time and attention in unevenly spread across team members creates a perception of favoritism. You may have asked a person to produce results that are incompatible or at cross-purposes with someone else’s goals, creating competitiveness in the place of collaboration. If you are slow to deal with non-performance issues, your team can begin to feel resentment. Overenthusiastic leaders cause conflict by setting team goals that are unrealistic and unreachable. The best way to avoid these causes is to create an environment of safety and open communication. When someone criticizes you in the team meeting, be curious instead of defensive. Thank those who notice goal collisions and help them work out mutually beneficial objectives. Allow criticism and honest debate about the work, with the proviso that people are not to be attacked. Build trust with each person, and with the group, so that you will get honest feedback. If you sense something is hurting the team’s morale, use a survey instrument or a third person to gather information that you can’t access, and then pay attention to what you learn.