Why does conflict happen in teams?

By working in teams we are able to bring together combined resources, skills and knowledge that is beyond the scope of any single individual. Working in teams is a double-edged sword; the very advantage sometimes becomes dysfunctional when teams cannot work together due to interpersonal conflicts.

There are many reasons why conflict emerges in teams. This could be due to the constant jostling for power, differences in values, and the positions that each individual in the team takes, based on perceptions of personal advantages. Recently I was facilitating a team about their values. One of the members was stuck to his position that ‘Teamwork’ should be the key value. While defending his position he forgot that ‘teamwork’ was not really happening in the group, where he was not permitting other members to air their views on teamwork. Conflict is aggravated in times of major changes, distribution of rewards, review of performance and external threats like major socio-eco-political downturns. Conflict in teams is inevitable. Teams require sound management and facilitation skills to resolve them. Handled well, conflicts can lead to learning, improved problem solving and better all round performance, both individually and collectively. This is an essay on using the Skilled Facilitator core values and ground rules for conflict resolution.

Resolving Conflict within Teams: Core Values;

1. Get the facts: One of the core values of any team needs to be valid information. Information to be valid, must be verified and not just rumors. They also need to be shared and everyone needs to be on the same page regarding the information. In conflict situation the entire facts of the situation needs to be on the table, without any information being kept away from any members.

2. Free and informed choice: The second core value, once the information is valid, the members and stakeholders need to have a free and informed choice about their participation. It is indeed very difficult to hand out solutions to members who do not have a free and informed choice to participate.

3. Internal commitment: The third core value follows from the first two. Only when all members to the conflict have valid information and free and informed choice will they agree to abide by the solutions and participate whole-heartedly to make the entire process a success.

4. Non-judgmentally: this is the key core value. Any concerns or doubts regarding hidden agendas must be clarified at the beginning and members accepted for their face value without any antecedent conditioning.

Once the core values are set, the team needs to have some ground rules for the actual conduct of the meeting and relationships. In the Skilled facilitator approach there are nine ground rules that help in adequately resolving conflicts, provided they are followed conjointly with the core values.

Ground Rules for Conflict Resolution

1. Check assumptions and inferences. We often make a quick personality definition of all people that we come in contact with. Based on their ethnicity, language, geographical location and other cultural background, we make stereotypes of people. We then set out to interact based on those assumptions. Sometimes, our most recent experience with an individual clouds our next interaction. If we really wish to resolve conflicts we need to check all assumptions and inferences before we set out to tackle the real issues that resulted in the conflict.

2. Share all relevant information: This ground rule along with the core values, sets the agenda for the exercise of conflict resolution. Any information withheld at the beginning will act as a surprise later and create a wall of defense around those who are not aware of the information. It will raise suspicion as to agenda and may even backfire with the situation becoming worse than it started with.

3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. Words mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Not explaining the exact meaning of words with specific examples will also violate rule one, as it may be wrongly assumed that everyone is on the same page, which may not be the reality.

4. Explaining reasoning and intent: This is a part of being open. Openness may result in some vulnerability. However, vulnerability leads to trust and therefore openness is a very important aspect of conflict resolution. This is like putting all your cards on the table. In all matters it works to clearly explain why we are doing what we are doing, and what do we expect as an outcome – what is our intention.

5. Focus on interests not positions: What is the difference between position and interest? A position is an end value – why do we want what we want? An interest on the other hand is a means value – how do we go about getting what we want. A position is a destination while an interest is taking different modes of transportation or different routes to reach the same destination. A position is a solution that people want. An interest is a desire and concern they have. When we focus on the interests we are able to deal with the relationship issues of the people and once the relationship is sorted, the solution is not the problem. Often we are agreed on the solutions, but continue to have conflict because our concerns are not addressed.

6. Combine advocacy with inquiry: To do this we first state what we want done and why (advocacy)? Then we check for others’ opinions on what we are advocating (inquiry). We do one more step of inquiry by asking other people for their alternative opinion and the reason thereof. This form of expression of opinion validates the core values to receive internal commitment through ownership.

7. Jointly design steps and define ways to test disagreement: By step six the ground would have been cleared for action to resolve the conflict and get ahead with an action plan for the task at hand as well as for future tasks. A jointly designed plan also helps to get internal commitment through ownership. By testing disagreements as and when they occur, the situation is brought under control and not allowed to simmer until things get out of hand.

8. Discuss indiscussable issues: This is one of the most important, but rarely used tool for conflict resolution. We normally feel that discussing indiscussbles will lead to further conflict and sweep the issues under the carpet -“what ain’t broken needn’t be fixed”. However, these issues never go away and return time and again to haunt us. Within the safety of the core values and the ground rules, discussing indiscussables acts as a safety valve to release pressure from team members by allowing them to freely express views without judgment. Under supervision of a skilled facilitator this can act wonders for team building as it clears airs of suspicion. It also keeps the team away from cooler talks and corridor whispers by giving an open forum for expression.

9. Use a decision making tool that generates a given level of commitment: Commitment is the key to teamwork. If decisions are imposed from above, there is very little ownership and therefore little internal commitment. This does not mean that all decisions have to be made after consultation with all group members. However, if the ground rules are followed in a practical manner and the group members are aware that core values will not be violated, there is scope for commitment without holding meetings of all members for all activities at all times. Imposition of certain tasks in these circumstances will be able to get full commitment as trust levels are at their peak.

While the above are like a charter for teams and followed closely will lead to effective functioning, the teams may need a skilled facilitator to facilitate initial meetings until the charter gets ingrained into the system and becomes a habit.