Helping Teams Deal with Conflict

The retrospective ended with two team members storming out of the room in opposite directions, two others toe-to-toe in heated dispute and Leah, the Product Owner handing out orders to whoever would listen. I started to realise how stuck this team actually was…

 

Over the few previous days I’d witnessed a lack of ability to make decisions without descending into behaviours like shutting-down, belittling, withdrawing and backchanneling. Everyone was working in silos and coordinated and communicated as little as possible day-to-day. To get anything done, the Product Owner felt like she needed to dominate all decision making just to move things forward! The team’s standups frequently ended up with team members either saying absolutely nothing, or face-to-face rows.


Conflict: Any situation in which people have apparently incompatible goals, interests, principles or feelings


At first glance things seemed pretty broken, but when I observed the team members interacting outside of their working context they got on just fine! They went for lunch together, asked about each other’s kids and cracked jokes. It was clear while they actually did have underlying trust and respect for each other, they just lacked the tools to work together constructively towards a shared goal. They were unable to have positive, constructive conflict.

 

Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. In fact an absence of conflict in a team should alarm you just as much as an abundance. If conflict simply boils down to individuals with disparate ideas, its presence is crucial to success in an arena where the creativity of individuals and groups is the deciding factor between success and failure. If conflict is handled well it leads to creativity and problem solving, handled badly it leads to poor solutions, anger, mistrust and broken relationships.
Put simply, a team with just one idea is going to struggle as much as a team who fight and bicker over every little decision!

 

I decided that an intervention was needed. I wanted the group to discover for themselves the behaviours they displayed and the effect those behaviours were having on their teammates.

To do this, I called a meeting with the group. The first step was to generate and categorise the behaviours that supported creativity and collaboration, and those that do not. I asked the group to brainstorm behaviours using the Dynamic Conflict Model (which I learned about from the awesome Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd) according to whether it was constructive, destructive, passive or active.


The next step involved getting each participant to note their personal reaction to the behaviours in each quadrant; “how do you feel or behave when you encounter these behaviours?” simply by allowing them to write their reactions on a sheet beside each section.

The next part involved a more introspective focus, with some added self-awareness! I asked the team “despite best intentions, all of us occasionally fall back on certain behaviours when we’re under pressure – what are your default behaviours?”. I began with my own (“focussing on winning instead of a shared goal” if you’re asking…) and then each attendee circled the behaviours they default to.

The penultimate stage involved some reflection while each team member took some time to assess the impact of their “under pressure” behaviours on their teammates, and this is where the ball began to drop. Slowly, everyone came to accept their impact on their team, and the room went silent while the team thought through recent failed events and the part they had to play.

 

To encourage active constructive behaviours on the team, the team finally came up with individual goals to consciously move their behaviour towards the upper right-hand quadrant. The group then shared their goals back with each other in a commitment to strengthen their working relationship.

 

Tony O'Halloran
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