Difference and challenge in teams
Difference and challenge in teams

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Difference and challenge in teams

3 ‘X wants one thing, Y wants another, Z yet another – they’re all too obstinate to give way!’

Sasha is a manager interested in developing a better team, as you will hear from the audio below (a transcript is also provided).

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I guess it’s my place as their line manager to intervene, but how do I do that and keep my dignity? They’re all adults, but I wish they’d act that way. Some days it’s like they’re fighting in a school playground. I don’t know if they expect me to be their headteacher, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with. Previous attempts to talk to any of them about this have wound them up further. That said, I’ve got to do something; it can’t go on like this – it seems to be getting personal and out of hand now.

End transcript
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In this scenario, it sounds like effective dialogue between at least three of the team has broken down. Sasha senses the need to intervene, yet may lack the confidence to do so. Sasha is not too specific about what is causing the conflict.

In the next activity, there are a few suggested questions that might help Sasha.

Activity 4

Using the interactive below, click on each of the questions to explore the thinking behind them.

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Activity 5

Timing: (30 minutes)

The previous activity raised many useful questions; to follow on, in this activity we seek more positive guidance. You will hear about two sorts of measures to address team conflict; as you will see, not every type of ‘conflict’ is bad for team performance and development:

  1. Curative measures: mechanisms to intervene and support colleagues involved in conflict. These aim at bringing the team through a conflict situation. (We take the position that, although conflict is inevitable, the destructive outcome of conflict is certainly not inevitable.)
  2. Preventative measures: setting up team structures and organising your teams in a way that helps reduce the frequency and impact of negative conflict. (We take the position that conflict is inevitable and cannot be eradicated.)

Now watch the following video extract from a round-table discussion involving business leaders and academics from The Open University. The discussion is entitled Management Now: tomorrow’s demands on today’s leaders. The title is informative because proficient management of conflict requires planning for the future: establishing preventative measures, and being prepared to apply curative measures when needed.

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Transcript: Webinar

Our third video is about dealing with conflict.
I think you have to deal with it. So I mean, for me, conflict is perhaps unavoidable sometimes. A workplace is never going to be a perfect utopian place where there's lots of flowers and nice-smiling gardens about all over the place.
So my perspective on it is to never-- don't be shy about it. And never shy away from it because I've found there are a couple of examples where some managers have chosen to do that. And then it festers, and it musters.
And then all of a sudden, it becomes alienation. And then it becomes a group of people. And then so you have to deal with the group of people rather than the individual.
So my advice has always been, with my guys and their teams is actually, don't shy away from it. But tackle it in a way that actually means you're going to do something meaningful about it. So have a touch base or sometimes have a prayer meeting and confess your sins. And it's that simple. It's just try and make a light heart of it, to some degree.
But I think that sometimes it's a true strength of character that what a manager or a leader is in an organisation is that if something's not quite right is to actually nip it in the bud quite quickly before it then escalates into something else and then before you find that actually an employee or a person on the team doesn't feel that you are dealing with it and then all of a sudden escalates it above you. And then your integrity's then called into question. I think if you can do that, then you might find that actually, it actually becomes better, you know? Because people don't feel that if there is a problem that they can come to you. And you also recognise the problem before it stops to muster and get out of control.
So the old adage about how you actually deal with a problem is-- or the conflict-- is more important than the fact that it is bound to arise at some point.
I think there are some tools and some training that you can give people in terms of how to deal with those conversations because they could go horribly wrong as well. Then you end up with another stressed person because you're now both really stressed, rather than one of them. So there's an anticipation.
I think staying in touch is important, getting feedback all the time so you know how it's going, and just checking in from time to time. But when you do need to sit down, and if it's a formal conversation-- and you might need someone else there with you-- I think that does-- you go through your education. You're doing projects. You work.
No one actually tells you some of this stuff about human relationships and nonverbal signals and all this sort of thing. But they are, I think, part of the armory of managers. You do need that if-- because at the end of the day, for most of us, our only asset is the people around us. Laptops, phones, the desks-- that's not what makes a difference. So I think giving people some help, is really important.
One of the things that I think is incredibly important in helping people to deal with conflict is to recognise that we all have characteristic ways of dealing with conflicts. And some of us are incredibly good at dealing with conflict. And some people are very good indeed at avoiding it and find it incredibly difficult to have those conversations.
So I completely agree that it's so right to say that it's part of a manager's armoury to understand how to be flexible in managing conflict. And although it's never a good thing to shy away from it, it possibly is sometimes worth making a judgement that a particular conflict is worth avoiding. I'm not advocating avoiding conflict in people management.
But within an organisation, there will be times when you think, surely, possibly not this one. I'll leave it alone. That's got to be true, hasn't it? So having an awareness of how to manage conflict and different approaches to it and your own strengths and weaknesses and how to manage those has got to be a plus for any manager, I think.
Or picking up that somebody else should be managing that conflict and not you.
And having a word with the other person I think's important, as well, because actually, they're not performing in dealing with that. So it's being aware of if you're going in there, is it your place, your role to do it? Or are you just doing it for somebody else, which I think is equally not helpful.
And welcome back. So what do you think about that? How can you improve the way you anticipate and manage conflict?
Now option A, you could create a culture of discussing problems early so they don't build into conflicts. Now point B, you could develop own personal skills in different ways of managing conflict. Option C, simply spend more time listening to people to get to know them better. Or option D, support own team and colleagues with different ways for them to manage conflict.
Well, here is what our webinar audience thought. They, going with option A. 60.7% of them believe that creating a culture of discussing problems early so that they don't build into conflicts is the way forward. That is the best way to anticipate and manage conflict.
Some thoughts about this point. "Conflicts often arise between individuals and groups that do not understand one another, whether that be their objectives, motives, or just the way that they do things. Therefore, the manager has to play an important role in creating the right atmosphere and opportunity for the different sides to resolve their issues." "Important to consider the cross-cultural dimension when looking to manage tensions or conflicts. Understanding the cultural drivers of tension can help."
End transcript: Webinar
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  • Note down one curative measure; and one preventative measure suggested by the panellists.
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  • How do you think ‘being flexible’ in dealing with conflict might be useful to a team leader?
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  • Describe a situation (one you’ve observed, or one you imagine) in which a manager might do well to keep out of a conflict situation between team members.
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  • Kevin Sampson suggests regular meetings where ‘sins’ can be confessed. We interpret this as top-down encouragement by a manager to their team to be open about things that haven’t gone well; e.g. areas where conflict may have arisen. Developing a tolerant and open culture, through the preventative measure of scheduling these meetings, gives an opportunity for others in the team to support those ‘in conflict’ –in turn this can be seen as a curative measure: the team being involved in open dialogue about particular conflicts.
  • Team members feel more comfortable with a consistent line or approach being taken by bosses. They may describe a manager as ‘harsh but fair, even handed’. However, different conflict situations require different solutions. The manager needs a repertoire of ways of approaching conflict – for example, some situations would benefit from a highly ‘visible’ intervention by the manager, whilst others may benefit more from a low-level, subtle approach – ‘quiet words’ with the individuals involved.
  • Allowing the parties in a conflict to resolve their own difficulties can have the effect of empowering them, perhaps even enhancing their future relationship. This isn’t the same as a manager ‘doing nothing’ – they may need to monitor the situation very closely to instigate or facilitate communication between the parties. Crucially, managers should be prepared to change their approach in light of how a conflict develops.

Take home: although there is such a thing as ‘creative conflict’, a little bit of the ‘wrong’ kind of conflict can be devastating, both to individual wellbeing and team effectiveness. To maintain or support the re-establishing of trust within the team, managers need to interrogate the background to conflict and be prepared to intervene. Intervention does not always mean a direct and heavy-handed resolution by a ‘superhero’ boss.

Extension: watch the other three sections of the Management Now roundtable discussion [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (the full video is 30 minutes, including the section used in the activity above). Reflect on the extent to which participants in this video refer to communication and team management skills as key to preparing for future business demands.


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