Spotting Potential Conflict

May 4, 2010 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

With almost any team endeavour, whether it is called a project or not, there will be ample opportunities for stresses to creep in, for decisions to be made that don’t make everyone happy, for things to not go according to plan. Just as with any stresses, if left unchecked there is a really good chance that matters will only get worse. Everyone on the team needs to be able to spot when something is not quite right, and deal with the issue at first opportunity.

Too often, these apparently minor stresses are simply swept under the table. People will swallow their pride and let the current issue go. Under the hood, though, perceptions of one another have been changed, some trust has been lost, some darkness remains. That darkness can easily grow, as now there are stronger assumptions that will be made about someone else’s behaviour, reinforcing what starts out as only slightly negative perceptions. Soon, people will find ways to avoid one another, dismiss each other’s opinions, and any semblance of a cohesive team has to make way for an elephant that has taken up residence in the room.

An elephant that nobody is comfortable to talk about. So let’s talk about it.

Ignoring that thing isn’t going to make it go away. Instead, you can bet that it will feed and grow, every time someone interrupts someone else, every time a comment is ignored, every time two people share a sideways glance, apparently sharing an unspoken opinion about someone else in the team. Note, too, that playing nice to one another for the benefit of an outsider that visits the group is painfully transparent. It simply makes for an elephant dressed in a tutu, which is even tougher to ignore.

If you are part of this team, accept the fact that you have been part of that dynamic that has allowed the team to get to this point, even if you are not directly involved in the conflict yourself. From that perspective, everyone on the team has the responsibility of working to resolve the problem, there is no room for trying to lay blame elsewhere. You need to acknowledge the problem, and work (along with others) to fix the problem.

Many times, the team will try to just beaver ahead and get the work done, trying to ignore this elephant. This might work if a) you can get your work done independently, b) you have only a short time left together on the project, c) the quality of what you are trying to build is inconsequential, and d) you have absolutely no stake in working together in the future. Otherwise, though, the cumulative cost in terms of reduced efficiency and quality (as the conflict continues to drag everyone down) and potential for falling into further dysfunction is huge. Far better to have the difficult conversations you need to fix things.

Note that this conflict is one of many different dynamics that are happening within the team at any one time. There are often a wide range of relationships all swimming together on a team, it is a rare team that has completely fallen into dysfunction all at once. Have a look at all of the one-to-one relationships within the group, and seek to reinforce the strong ones, using them as a basis to improve the weaker ones.

Stay vigilant for even the smallest of signs, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of letting the small things go (or even worse, allowing yourself to be responsible for some of those small things). Every elephant in the room starts out as one of these apparently small things, and when it comes to conflict, an ounce of prevention really does go a long way. It all starts with spotting that something is not quite right, and tackling it before it gets out of control. – JB


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