Managing Group Conflict

Imagine that you’re sitting in on a group meeting. You notice immediately that there is a climate of openness, respect and high energy. You see that all viewpoints are welcomed; everyone feels free to bring up even the thorniest of issues. There is no shortage of opinion here. Everyone has strong ideas, and yet as impassioned as they are, they engage each other in a civil debate focused on the issues. They work hard to get the best that the collective brain of the team has to offer.

Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it?

Most groups I’ve seen or have been a part of seem to swing between two extremes. On one side is a “floating” team is where everyone “makes nice” and avoids conflict at all cost. Team members float along on someone else’s agenda to avoid rocking the boat. They may view teamwork as unnecessary, as something which diminishes their own high standards of performance. At the other end of the spectrum is a team in “friction.” Group members clash openly, criticizing each other’s ideas or using sarcasm and putdowns to make their case. Or, they go underground, resorting to gossiping or back-stabbing. They talk about issues but only with one or two other members and their discussions take place outside the meeting room (water cooler, restroom or parking lot).

Such dysfunctional teams, whether floating or in friction, cannot get any real work done. Fortunately, as manager or project team leader, there are ways to steer your team toward productive conflict. There are ways to turn the fantasy scenario above into a reality. Here are some strategies and techniques:

Stage Setting Meeting
Facilitate a team meeting (or several shorter meetings if time is a factor), which accomplishes the following:

  • Help the team redefine the word “conflict.” The word itself brings up negative images for most people (war, struggle, misery, stress, etc.). Given those terms, who would want to engage in conflict? Try introducing this definition instead: “Conflict is any situation in which incompatible goals, attitudes, emotions, or behaviors lead to disagreement or opposition between two or more parties.” That seems to take some of the heat out of it. Also, emphasize that conflict in itself isn’t a bad thing; it is harmful only when it distracts the team from achieving its objectives.
  • Establish the vision: Ask the team to paint a picture of what productive conflict looks like so they will know when they’re doing it right, such as: all viewpoints are welcomed; issues are surfaced as soon as they arise; concerns are discussed in the room; people focus on issues and not on personalities.
  • Explore the impact: Ask the team to describe the benefits of productive conflict, such as: motivates change and innovation; more serious conflict is defused; people build skills in conflict resolution.
  • Establish ground rules: Ask the team to set their own ground rules for how conflict will be handled. Once they do this, they own it.

During Team Meetings

  • Encourage open discussion of issues and problems as soon as they arise. If team members are unable to discuss the real issue, encourage them to acknowledge what’s getting in the way.
  • Teach your team to recognize what they are in conflict about:
    • Task Conflict—Differences over what work is to get done
    • Process Conflict—Controversy over how work is to get done
    • Relationship Conflict—Dislike or distrust among team members, lack of understanding of different personalities and work styles
  • When you see members engaged in productive (if uncomfortable) conflict, interrupt them right then and there and tell them they are doing it exactly right.
  • If members are in direct conflict with one another, coach them on how to resolve their differences. (For some tips, see my previous post: “How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflict.”)
  • Continually foster an atmosphere of trust and respect within the team.

Steering your team toward productive conflict is not easy. It will take time and it may get messy, at least for a while. But it’s worth the effort. After all, the purpose of forming a group is to get different viewpoints. And the only way to hear those different views is to allow for some healthy conflict. So, rather than avoid conflict, we should move toward it. The benefits are enormous, to individuals, your team, and your organization.

Let me know how it goes.

. . . Until next time.

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