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Conflict isn’t all bad

Moving past conflict 

 We’ve all crossed paths with conflict.  Situations, people, personal relationships, work relationships, conflict between others, conflict of our own.  They are frustrating.  And they lead to dead ends and stalemates in getting work done.   

Is it as simple as telling everyone to get along, be nice, and work toward the greater good?  Sounds pretty easy and who would oppose that?  Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

All conflict is not bad either.  It can lead to growth, change, seeing things from different perspectives.  It can even lead to competitive advantages and stronger teams.

In this article, we are going to talk about some characteristics and how you can approach it from an angle that strengthens your organization rather than tearing it (and your mood) down. How to bring it back to the true problem and keep it from being a personal affront.


Skip straight to the take-aways


Imagine your colleague has an assignment that you need before you can get started on your portion.  It is REALLY important to you to get this work done but just another task on their to do list.  They don’t finish on time.  You follow up.  They take another week to hand it off to you. 

Now imagine this happens for months.  Even a year.  On a HUGE assignment you have finally had enough, are having a bad day anyway, someone snarled at you for no good reason, and you let your colleague know just what you think about their lack of accountability.  If you haven’t experienced or can’t even imagine this scenario, close your computer and go buy a lottery ticket because you are one lucky person!

In this scenario and throughout the course of year there are a lot of things that could have been done to better communicate and deal with this before it rose to the level of conflict.  That doesn’t usually happen though. 

Create procedures so that a standard is set and expectations can be met, keeping them from being a source of conflict.

stick figures strangling each other

The Facts:

The work of Bruce Tuckman spells out the stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.  Forming, or the development of a group and understanding the relationships of its members.  Storming, the conflict that arises out of misunderstandings, different work or leadership styles.  Norming, as people resolve differences and individual strengths are valued.  Performing, or the flow of working together efficiently. And adjourning (or mourning) celebration and debrief of group activities. 

This is not a linear path that groups follow and they can move backward and forward into stages.  Knowing where you are at in the stages can help teams figure out what to do next and where to focus their energy to do things better.

Dianne Crampton, author of TIGERS Among Us says “Recent research conducted by Ken Blanchard shows that 60% of teams fail. The storming stage that comes from relationship issues together with unclear goals and accountability for roles explains why.”

Common characteristics of conflict:

  • It started on a procedureal level – you didn’t do what you are supposed to do and now I can’t do what I am supposed to do
  • It turned personal – now I look bad or have to fail because you didn’t do what you are supposed to do
  • It brings out strong emotions
  • If not dealt with it continues to create problems (even new problems)
  • It takes a lot of practice and discipline to keep from reacting emotionally
  • Learning can come from a leader or examples but not by telling someone what they are doing wrong

What can be done

Communicate the handoffs to your colleague and team so that they are aware of what is at stake.  Awareness can go a long way.  In many worlds the thing that is screaming the loudest is what gets addressed.  This doesn’t mean YOU need to scream the loudest. Ut does mean you need to make sure that you are communicating effectively and not leaving anything up to interpretation. 

Set expectations.  Refer to accountabilities set within job descriptions, project assignments, or through leadership.  Need support?  Find that person you can go to who removes barriers and helps you solve problems.  Check out another article we wrote on team accountability. 

Be real.  When you don’t do what you are supposed to, you must accept responsibility and work to be better.  Everyone messes up or has an off day.  External factors can weigh heavy on productivity.  Be aware that even though emotional conflict can stem from procedural, procedural issues can also come from personal challenges.

Step back from conflict.  It feels good to get it out but doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.   Consider what really started the conflict.  Sometimes this means taking a break or asking to come back to the topic at a more appropriate time. 

Acknowledge the emotion.  When things escalate don’t skirt the uncomfortable aspects.  Strengthen your relationship by acknowledging, listening and creating a better outcome next time.

Bring it back to the procedure.  What is the thing that didn’t get done and is that the root of the problem?  How can it be done now?  What mitigation must happen to right the wrong?  How can we keep it on track next time?

chess set ready to compete

Use Procedure to your advantage:

I often see organizations with team conflict and challenges with effectiveness of work. Within the private sector these lead to decreased profitability or in a nonprofit decreased fulfillment or inability to impact the mission.  This is a waste of time.  A waste of passion.  A waste of opportunity to do what we really want to be doing or should be doing.   

The good news: if this is the space you are currently residing, there is a lot of opportunity for improvement!  Below are some tangible factors to recognize and to create positive change.

Documentation to get you started:

    • Team roles with position descriptions
    • Important policies as standards
    • Handoff of important tasks and how people interact with process checklists and manuals
    • Ground rules for how team members work with each other

You don’t have to be perfect here.  If you don’t have anything written down for each of these, start there.  Make a simple checklist.  Borrow one from the interwebs or a similar organization.  Have team members write down their accountabilities and then bring them all together to talk about the handoffs.  Create procedures so that a standard is set and expectations can be met, keeping them from being a source of conflict.

You aren’t alone.  

Many of these things you can get started on your own.  Here are some excellent resources that support growing organizations:

  • Measure What Matters by John Doerr (book)
  • TIGERS Among Us by Dianne Crampton (book)
  • TIGERS Workforce Behavioral Profile (team survey)

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