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Talking About Conflict

From Maria Simpson’s Two-Minute Trainings

Most work in organizations is done in teams. A great way to understand team dynamics is to read Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and a great way to implement an improvement plan is to use his Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for team development.

One of the main problems teams face is an inability to discuss conflicts and disagreements appropriately, that is, without rancor, accusations, and personal attacks based on an underlying lack of trust among team members. Most teams never conduct a self-analysis of how they work together, so they don’t ever document the dysfunction (even if they recognize it) because it is never openly identified. After all, why would team members want to discuss a sensitive topic like team interactions or conflict if they don’t trust that they will not be accused  of some negative intent or be the object of someone’s need to retaliate?

Lencioni addresses this issue by suggesting ground rules for discussing conflicts based on behavioral guidelines, not attitudes like trust or respect. You don’t have to trust or respect others to agree not to shout or call each other derogatory names, although of course that helps. These guidelines are similar to the ground rules used by mediators: not interrupting, not using potentially objectionable language, not shouting, etc.

Lencioni also suggests letting the group set its own ground rules, to create its own norms of behavior for discussing conflicts. (I was especially glad to see this because I have been planning to use this approach with a group in the near future.) Before starting a difficult conversation a set of norms should be agreed to by all parties. The process starts by asking team members to note their preferences for acceptable behavior and their identification of unacceptable behaviors, like interrupting, tone of voice, use of language. Then their lists are compared and the group agrees on what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Some organizations or groups will write these norms out and distribute them, even to asking team members to sign them. In large scale construction projects, this approach is standard practice, and of course, much more complicated, but identifying an acceptable process for discussing conflict is part of the project right from the beginning.

A key aspect of making this process work is holding each other mutually accountable for maintaining the norms. A manager should not have to intervene just to keep order; accountability should come from the team itself.

People don’t like having rules imposed on them and are much more likely to follow rules to which they have had input and agreed to in advance. So, give team members the chance to create their own rules and then hold themselves to them. Or rather, be sure they hold each other to them.

A Quick Thank You!

I really appreciate the responses I got to my one-question survey on workplace conflict. There is still time to respond, so here’s the question again. I’d love to have your feedback.

  1. If you could have 15 minutes of my time to help with anything you need related to workplace conflict, what would you ask me?

Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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