What do I do when my teammates won’t stop arguing with each other?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships. — Michael Jordan

I recently completed a project with a new team that was comprised of five people. We all came from entirely different disciplines, had drastically different personalities, and almost everyone was trying to be the leader. So naturally, we had a lot of clashes and were almost always arguing.

The project criteria were vague and open-ended, so that didn’t help. We could not simply divvy up the tasks and go mind our own businesses — we had to work together on almost every stage of the project.

Because of the lack of clear directions and project requirements, we panicked. We had a tight deadline, a lot of work to do, and no clarity on how our project should be done or how we could measure the completeness of it.

We spent at least three full days throwing out random ideas, defending them and picking them apart, with an unhealthy amount of awkward silence after each argument.

At first, we felt we were productive because we had a lot of “discussions” (read: arguments). But it was mostly a false sense of productivity and progress as we were not moving any closer to our project goal.

Now, I studied design in school and worked a lot of team projects where we had to design and execute on open-ended projects and ideas; I’m no stranger to this kind of team work, so I understand the inevitability and necessity for arguments in team-building.

However, we had been flailing around aimlessly for three full days without making any meaningful progress. Considering our tight deadline, I recognized our deficiency. I had to shorten the team-building and get everyone focused, so we could finally start making real progress.

Here are the steps I took that saved the team from the downward spiral of meaningless attacking and arguing, which in turn gave us focus and allowed us to harness the power of collaboration:

  1. Clarify the project purpose and goal, and write it down on the whiteboard for everyone to see at all times. This acted as our Northern Star that kept us always focused on the goal and going to the right direction.
  2. Have each team member do their own research and brainstorm their own ideas. This reduces arguments by preventing people from attacking each other’s ideas and defending their own half-formed ideas.
  3. Combine the research results and learnings from each member. The combined knowledge is guaranteed to be more in depth and complete than any individual’s learnings.
  4. Get everyone to write their ideas on the whiteboard all at once — avoiding the pitch-y style of presenting ideas. This allowed the team to finally act as a team. We were a collective whole thinking with a collective brain while looking at a list of ideas free of judgements.
  5. The team goes through the list of ideas on the whiteboard. Instead of discussing whether the ideas would work or trying to identify potential problems, the team could only discuss what we liked about the idea and how we could take it forward. This further eliminated arguments because everyone will be focused on the good, instead of arguing and being defensive about the bad.

Now, it is important to note that these steps were not invented by me. I learned from my design professors, numerous conference talks on design, design companies like IDEO, and many other resources on design and team-building.

What I could take credit on is mostly building a good relationship with everyone in the team so that they were willing to trust me, listen to me and help me enforce this process.

Looking back, the five steps mentioned above were crucial in the success of my team’s project. There were other factors at play, of course, but the steps acted as a solid foundation for us to explore, iterate, experiment, and build on the collective wisdom of the team — it far exceeds any individual’s efforts and intelligence.

In the end, we were able to make meaningful progress before it was too late. We ended up finishing our project ahead of the schedule with high-fidelity prototypes (custom printed, cut, and corners rounded) to present to everyone.

The main takeaways from this were (TL;DR):

  1. Disagreements and sometimes arguments are an integral part of team work. Recognizing the “why” behind it is important, and redirecting that energy is even more so.
  2. Have a clear project goal
  3. Brainstorm in a non-judgemental way
  4. Get people to ask “what can we take forward from this idea” instead of “what’s wrong with this idea”.
  5. Team work has inevitable overheads, but with a good process in place, it will almost always produce better results/products than any individual team member can.

The End.

Be sure to comment, like, share, subscribe, thumbs up, +1, upvote, retweet, repost, pin, snap it, follow me, AddThis, digg it, stumble upon it, disqus it, DM it…

email your friends, call your mom, write a letter to your grandma, wave at your neighbours from balcony, say hi to a stranger, smile at the Starbucks cashier even if s/he spelled your name wrong, and last but not least,

say a few appreciating words to your teammates. You’ve put up a lot of bullshit from your teammates (pat yourself on the back), but they have, too, from you :)

Thanks for reading.

The Actual End.
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