Team Conflicts Are Unavoidable: Lessons Learned With The Pinch-Crunch Model

Don’t run away from confrontation, because things will just get worse.

Workplace conflicts are inevitable. Whether disagreeing over direction and decisions or coping with difficult teammates, we've all dealt with (and avoided) disputes at work. The premise of the Pinch-Crunch Model is that conflicts (pinches) are unavoidable, and if left unresolved, lead to decrease in performance and festering resentment (crunches). Good leaders know that avoiding conflict deprives teams of the opportunity to have meaningful discussions that lead to better performance and stronger relationships.

What Causes Pinches?

At the core, pinches are disruptions of our workplace expectations. Usually, the other party has no idea that they have caused the rift that has you seething. Most people avoid dealing with pinches because they don’t want to, or know how to, have an open conversation to address issues. Pinches are common in startup environments where roles and expectations can be ambiguous and fluid. Because organizational structure tends to be decentralized and teams are inexperienced, people can be afraid to step on others’ toes, so they hesitate to disagree or request changes, while others don’t quite understand the basic processes of their roles and are low performers.

But this issue is not limited to startups. Everyone experiences pinches at some point in their career. I’m sure many people reading this dealt with pinches in the same way: complained to a friend or spouse; displayed acts of anger or pettiness towards the other party causing the pinch; become defensive about your work; retaliated in some other toxic way such as gossiping at work. This type of avoidance behaviour seems like the easiest way, but failing to deal with pinches head on leads to feelings of ambiguity, anxiety or resentment for all parties and will result in a crunch.

Pinch Versus Crunch

While pinches occur when our workplace expectations are not being met, crunches are open enmity. Both sides are unhappy and unable to work together, and other members are directly or indirectly affected by the dispute. Typically, once you reach the crunch stage, there are one of three outcomes: termination, renegotiation of expectations, or a continued cycle of pinches and crunches. The best-case scenario is to avoid crunches and deal with pinches immediately, to not only prevent long-term damage of team dynamics but also to uncover opportunities to have critical discussions that influence improved team performance.

Pinch Crunch Model

How To Deal With Pinches

First, you need to understand the personalities of your colleague and learn how they deal with conflict. Before discussing what’s bothering you, it’s important to have all the facts straight, so you can approach the conversation proactively rather than reacting to pinches.

  1. Be Prepared

Identify that you too have a part in the dispute. Relationships are a two-way street, and you never know how your behaviour might be causing pinches to others. Establish the type of relationship you want to have with your team; this will help you have an open dialogue that focused on positive outcomes rather than playing the blame game. Finally, write down the facts of the situation — don’t leave anything up to interpretation for either party.

2. Participate In Open Dialogue

Communicate the pinches to your teammate; this is where your notes will come in handy. Again, don’t play the blame game but look at the issue as something you can work together to improve. Be specific in what you experience (again- facts, not interpretations). Be definitive in how this person can help you resolve this issue by improving their attitudes or behaviours. Remember that you’re not trying to ‘win’ but constructively resolve these conflicts.

3. Be Prepared To Listen

Be ready to ask your colleague for feedback and listen to their side of the story without getting defensive. If your teammate is having a difficult time expressing themselves, ask questions to get to the root of the problem. How do they feel when the issue occurs? What would work better for them? What are the specific actions or behaviours you exhibit that is causing pinches for them? Be ready to look at your part in this issue and work hard to improve it for the sake of your team.

4. Know When To Ask For Help

Dealing with pinches requires work from both parties, and ideally, the issue is resolved at this point. If your colleague doesn’t put in the effort, the cycle of pinches and crunches will continue to escalate, in which case you have no other option but to bring in a third party to mediate. In an ideal world, two adults can have an open dialogue about how to improve their relationship, but sometimes you need Human Resources or Management to facilitate and support these conversations. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this resources in many organizations.

How to Deal With Pinches Without HR or Management Support

Gaining the support of your manager can be tricky. In many startup environments, managers are inexperienced, overworked or unaware of their biased behaviours. In some organizations, HR departments act as support operations for executives, rather than an advocate for the people. There is no question that mishandling pinches will lead to hostility. Without the backing of leadership, the onus is on you, the employee, to handle this delicate situation the best way possible. Having experienced this situation first hand I’ve learned a few things:

Set Expectations on a Management Level

Ask for clearly defined expectations of the working relationship. Setting boundaries and communicating your limit is important in establishing responsibility for your manager. Usually, when pinches occur for all sides, it’s because there is ambiguity from the direction you are both receiving (aka leadership).

Track Everything

And I mean everything — dates, type of interactions, the outcome of interactions, email correspondence, clearly laid managerial expectations and violations of these expectations. Pinches and crunches are a cycle, and if not dealt with properly this issue will occur again in the future, so it’s better to stay prepared with specifics for the discussion.

Check Your Attitudes and Behaviours

In your previous conflict resolution conversation, your peer has already given you specifics on how to improve your working relationships by working on your behaviours that cause pinches. It’s easy to cave to the mentality that “they aren’t trying so why should I?” You have a personal responsibility to resolve the disagreement, and at the end of the day, holding up your end of the bargain speaks volumes of your character to the rest of the team.

You Can’t Do It Alone

Handling interpersonal disagreements constructively is essential to professional success. Fostering positive workplace relationships enable you to not only learn and grow in your current role, but builds communication skills necessary for future challenges. Learning to approach conflict as an opportunity opens up the possibility to have meaningful conversations that are essential to team growth. Dealing with pinches head on will minimize the adverse impact on performance, and help you to be a better team player.

[Disclaimer: This post is not associated with sendwithus, or the sendwithus team. This is an opinion piece.]