There is a conflict in my team — what does it mean?

Lately, I had an opportunity to participate in two soft-skills workshops: one about assertiveness and the other about synergy and building effective teams. You may say: I am a developer/programmer — why should I care? It sounds like a training for Team Leaders. I was also surprised to see almost only software engineers / programmers in the room and they seem
to be happy with what they’ve learned. Both trainings were very good eye-openers and in my personal opinion gathered knowledge may be at least as much useful in private life as at work.

Team building workshop started with practical activities.
After a short introduction and some warm-up integration games we were given a serious assignment. Our task was to imagine that as a group we ended up on an uninhabited island as a result of an accident. We had 30 minutes to imagine the situation and do SOMETHING. Nothing else was explained. We were decision makers and owners of our destiny. Everything was recorded. After the exercise each of us was asked to express personal level of satisfaction and group performance on scale from 1–10 and
explain what would have to change to make the score higher. A few obvious but interesting things came up:
- people less engaged were less satisfied than people highly engaged,
- popular cause of smaller engagement was lack of ability to voice individual opinion and be heard,
- one of the main problems we had was lack of common goal / common understanding of the goal,
- fact that people don’t talk doesn’t mean that they have nothing to say

Later on, we learned that as a group on island we were at the very beginning of forming our team (we didn’t get to “storming” phase).
We were avoiding difficult topics and decisions. After chaotic discussion at the very beginning,
a few leaders emerged and the group followed them with bigger or smaller engagement (and satisfaction)
but without any strong opposition / disagreement.

After this practical exercise we were given a bit of theory about forming teams. It explained what happened during the exercise.
The very basic fact is that each team in order to perform well needs to go through following phases:
- forming
- storming
- norming
- performing
- and sometimes — splitting
It turned out that the most important is well handled storming. Without proper storming people won’t feel safe enough to bring up difficult topics and discuss what really bothers them.
During “forming” phase we should look for similarities, common goal and habits. It’s time when team creates its identity. It’s also a good moment to think of potential future problems / conflicts and come up with a
set of rules which will make handling them easier when they come.
“Storming” is when first conflicts emerge. It’s extremely important to handle them properly and not finish too quickly. Everyone should have a room to fully express his opinions and feelings. Nothing should be neglected or hidden. In “norming” phase team members should feel safe to voice their real opinions and discuss difficult topics. Diversity should be valued at this point. “Performing” is time of highest effectiveness of the team. Usually, at this point people start introducing changes and look for improvements.
Every change in the team makes him going through all the phases from the very beginning.

Since storming is necessary part of every team evolution and the most difficult at the same time, it’s good to be prepared. During the training we spent quite a lot of time on getting knowledge and practical tools to handle conflicts. I have to admit, knowing methods make a difference! I experienced it on myself. I have volunteered as a mediator during conflict.
I did it twice: first time without any formal knowledge about handling conflicts and the second time equipped with a set of practical tools. My performance was completely different.

According to the Moore’s theory there are three types of conflicts which are not solvable but still common:
1. Conflict focused on people relations — when we assume / argue what other person thinks of us. Assumption that the other person dislikes us, is against us.
2. Problems with data: — it’s every time we hear: “the door was open” — “no, the door was closed”… It not solvable unless we have recording. Both persons can truly believe in what they say — that’s how they remember it.
3. Conflict caused by differing values — when someone tries to impose a set of values to someone else. Make someone value work and
learning more than home and family life.

Instead of focusing on the above areas we should try to redirect the conflict on our real goals. We should try to understand what we want to achieve (what’s our business) and what the other person tries to get. As soon as we identify our needs, instead of trying to change someone’s beliefs or argue about historic data we can achieve what’s important for both sides and be happy instead of miserable :) It’s easy when we have a common goal. Sometime our goals look exactly opposite and finding anything which could make both persons happy seems impossible. In such cases, it’s acceptable to use some kind of defined structure to solve the conflict. It can be asking third person for decision or making a random choice. It’s never as good as finding common goal but can transform unsolvable conflicts into manageable ones.

Just in case you end up as a mediator in any conflict (not necessarily at work), there is a set of steps which can make life of conflict mediator much easier:
1. Show the common goal. Why do we want to solve the conflict? And define clear set of rules for discussion — make a contract.
Eg. We don’t judge the other people. We don’t interrupt each other.
2. Give every person chance to express his opinions without interruptions. Make sure all problems were voiced. As a mediator you can paraphrase what people say. It will give you better understanding, other people will gain feeling of being heard. It will also make the words “softer”, cutoff all emotions.
3. Sum up all problems.
4. Invite people to come up with solutions. Ask them to recall similar situations in the past and how they were solved? Ask what would have to happen to make the person feel…? Try to change perspective of thinking: put one person in the shoes of the other.
5. Some up all decisions, actions which need to be taken. Or even better: make people to sum it up to make sure everyone is on the same page.
6. Ask about level of satisfaction after solving the conflict (on the scale from 1 to 10). You will be surprised how new problems will come up… ;)

Now we know that conflicts are needed to improve team performance and actually to make any relation stronger. We know how to handle them (at least theoretically). But hold on… don’t you ask yourself why do conflicts even exist in the world? What causes conflicts?

To make it short: differences between people. That seems quite obvious. If everyone was the same, had the same beliefs and values there wouldn’t be reasons for arguments. But the life would be boring, less inspiring… and there wouldn’t be place for innovation. Diversity is needed for teams to perform well. It’s important to make everyone in the team aware of this fact
and aware of differences between us so that we can take a full benefit of them. There is a game called “Personality poker” invited by Stephen Shapiro http://stephenshapiro.com/books/personality-poker-deck/.
It shows different styles of working and ways to approach them to get the most. During the workshop we were given Belbin’s test to complete. Similarly to “Personality Poker” it shows different team roles and their
characteristics. Having done one of these exercises in the team not only make people know each other better, make communication and
cooperation easier but explain some behaviours which may have been misperceived.Last but not least, awareness of the fact that everyone has a right to his own opinion,treating other people opinions / feedback as a gift which can be either used for our own benefit or left untouched and feeling responsible for our emotions are less known but very helpful aspects of assertiveness…

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