The conflicts that often arise in teams can make you want to throw up your arms in despair, retreat to your office, and live out your career in team-less bliss. But collaboration is here to stay, and while it isn’t easy, putting more minds on the job usually yields better results. If your team has dissolved into arguments or two members just can’t seem to get along, how can you get things back on track? How you do you turn a team marred by dysfunction into one that excels together?
What the Experts Say
Conflict is part of working on a team and, while it’s often uncomfortable, it can also be healthy. “There will, even should be, conflict in a group with a task that has even a minimum of complexity,” says Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at Kellogg Graduate School of Management, the Director of the Kellogg School’s Dispute Resolution Research Center, and co-author of Getting Disputes Resolved. Understanding why teams fight, how and when to get involved, and how to prevent fights in the future is a critical skill for all team leaders.
Stop Disputes Before They Happen
Unfortunately, most team leaders assume they’ll deal with disagreements as they come up. But Brett advises doing more prep work than that – to have “solid conflict management procedures in place to deal with [conflicts] when they arise, because they will arise.” These rules will also help you work through issues more quickly. “Solving disputes after they happen is a hell of a lot more work,” adds Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and co-author of Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.
Another important proactive measure is ensuring that your team shares the same purpose, values, and identity. Boyatzis says teams should “devote a certain amount of time to talking about the team itself.” In these discussions, instead of focusing on easier, more concrete issues like goals and measurement, get the group to agree on its purpose first. Do this when the team forms, and throughout its existence. Boyatzis is part of a consortium that has met twice a year for the past decade. The group starts every meeting by reading aloud the team norms they agreed to ten years ago. He concedes that this might seem odd to an outsider but thinks this is what keeps the team grounded and focused.
How and When to Intervene
Some of the most common disputes include conflicts over tasks, working norms, or process. Regardless of why your team is fighting, following a few simple guidelines can help you resolve disputes quickly.