Team conflict is typically seen as negative. We tend to think of it as team members disagreeing, arguing and yelling. Dealing openly with group conflict seems uncomfortable for most individuals, but these derailments are a normal part of every team's functioning. Dealing with a team conflict head-on can assist the team in finding better solutions and developing a solid foundation of trust in the long run.
Every team has internal conflicts from time to time. Many leaders avoid team conflict, and others handle disagreements inappropriately. But leaders who handle problems constructively can improve productivity, generate new ideas and personally develop team members.
"At first blush, team conflict seems to be negative and something that needs the team leader's immediate involvement to rectify," says Jon Warren, assistant division director of education with the Missouri Department of Corrections. "Sometimes conflict among team players is very important in developing new thinking and actually moving the team forward."
Stages of Team Development
Teams go through definite stages as they develop. Bruce Tuckman, in his often-cited 1965 Psychological Bulletin article "Developmental Sequence in Small Groups," took existing theories and boiled them down to four stages of team development: Forming, storming, norming and performing. Determining which stage of development the team is in will help a leader decide how to handle the conflict.
"Team conflict can be resolved quickly and effectively and only requires one key ingredient," says Warren. "That key ingredient is a team leader who can diagnose a team within stages of team development and choose from an array of effective team leadership skills necessary for appropriate intervention at the moment."
As the team members are getting to know each other in the forming stage, a leader needs to be more directive. In the storming stage when conflict arises, the leader needs to be both directive and supportive. In the norming stage, as team members work out their differences, the leader needs to be more supportive and less directive. Finally in the performing stage, when the team is moving easily ahead, the leader should be supportive.
Tools to Overcome Conflict
There are many ways to handle conflict constructively. "Using situational leadership with teams is an excellent way to overcome conflict and move forward," says Warren. Here are some additional steps you can teach your team members:
- Attack the problem, not the person.
- Focus on what can be done, not on what can't be done.
- Encourage different points of view and honest dialogue.
- Express your feelings in a way that does not blame.
- Accept ownership for your part of the problem.
- Listen to understand the other person's point of view before giving your own.
- Show respect for the other person's point of view.
- Solve the problem while building the relationship.
When conflict arises during a team meeting, it is important to address it as soon as possible. If the conflict has nothing to do with the topic at hand, defer it to a later time. If conflict gets extremely overheated, take a break and let everyone cool off.
Getting Back on Track
A team derailment can be disconcerting to most team members. To ensure your team gets back on track and stays there, do the following:
- Hold a debriefing meeting/team intervention and discuss what happened and how it can be avoided again.
- Create a contract between the team members stating the team rules.
- Have a celebration with all the team members.
Don't let a team conflict stop you in your tracks. Handle the conflict with skill and confidence, and your team will achieve its goal.