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Learning to embrace conflict and contribute in teams

Your team expects you to speak up.

Speaking up in teams

BigTalker recently hosted a teamwork communications professional development session at General Assembly. The premise of the ‘Teamwork dynamics’ session is that teamwork is critical, but messy. Per the Atlassian teamwork project:

“Working in teams is challenging. There are many things that get in the way of good teamwork and slow teams down:

Lack of project transparency

Information silos

Challenges in company culture

Communication breakdowns”

To build a team culture of psychological safety that drives innovation, every team member must sharpen their team communication skills. Communications skills can be built with professional development sessions where attendees can practice engaging in a safe environment.

Meetings, meetings, meetings

For many of us, team meetings are stressful events. They can feel unstructured and chaotic. When people are in a heated discussion around us, our instinct can be to clam up. Fundamentally, we tend to stay away from conflict because we don’t want to upset the (social) apple cart.

There are many reasons why we retreat from conflict:

Fear of embarrassment — fear of saying something dumb

Fear of retribution — fear of being attacked for what you said

Fear of hurting others — fear of damaging relationships

The “mum effect”

It’s quite natural to shy away from conflict. For example, a research study from Rosen and Tesser showed that its human nature to be reluctant to share bad news. We will bite our tongue if we have negative information that our team doesn’t know. We want to support our friends by shielding them from bad news. The “mum effect” is we are “mum about undesirable messages.”

This reluctance to share bad news is, of course, the premise of every sitcom TV show. ;)

The opposite, of course, is truth-telling and transparency. Transparency and openness are important in team communications, especially in sharing bad news with each other. If the customer support team is hearing that customers hate a new feature, it’s best to tell the product manager right away. The team may be upset at first, but ultimately she’ll be glad that her colleagues told her.

Practitioners of politeness

Another research study from DePaulo and Bell showed that we are more likely to lie to people we like. We’ll lie to our best friends to shield them from an opinion that everyone has about them. We are “practitioners of politeness.”

Politeness, of course, seems like the socially acceptable thing to do, but it can be disingenuous if you’re hiding truth that needs the entire team needs to know. Openness can feel risky. There is delicate balance between being polite and being forthright and open with your teammates.

Learning to embrace conflict

As professionals, we need to learn to have the courage to embrace conflict at work. To get started, focus on being kind, being socially sensitive, and fighting fair.

Fighting fair means not making it personal, making sure you are heard, and seeking the truth.

From Gary Tan on co-founder conflict:

“Fighting fair is collaborative and data-based. One concrete thing before you start to work through conflict is to always remind yourselves: You’re on the same team.”

Active listening

Next we need to truly listen to each other. Active listening is a powerful teamwork skill — listen to what your teammates are saying, but notice their tone and emotion. What’s behind what they are saying? Switch off the impulse to interject your opinion right away and truly listen to your teammate’s perspective. Ask probing questions and seek to fully understand what is important to them.

Speaking up in team discussions

After listening to a heated team conversation, you are ready to jump in. What are you going to say? How are you going to contribute to moving this project forward?

In our sessions, we ask attendees to listen to a teammate. Once they have listened, they may respond in one of four ways, depending on the level of risk and value they are comfortable with.

Levels of contributions in team communication

Four levels of contributing to the conversation

  1. Reframe: Play back what was said — active listening
  2. Support: “Yes, and…” Build on, collaborate
  3. Engage: Assess what was said, analyze
  4. Challenge: Suggest action based on what was said

The level of contribution may vary by person, depending on many variables. It’s important for attendees to reflect on how they showed up for their team.

Did they hold back? Were they supportive? Were they collaborative? Did they offer suggestions for action, and if so, did they challenge their team while being respectful and kind?

Social courage is how teams overcome communication breakdowns. The courage to speak up, in this case “democratic turn-taking,” is what drives the value of psychological safety in teams. From the Google Aristotle study on psychological safety

“My team expects me to speak up. It’s how we do things.”



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