By Andrew Moore
This month’s Thoughts from the Field (July 2023) is written by my colleague Andrew Moore (Brisbane, Queensland, AU).
In his book The Motive, Pat Lencioni suggests that one role of a responsibility-centered leader is to personally develop the leadership team, which includes managing the interpersonal dynamics between team members, especially ones caught in a destructive conflict impacting the team. By Pat’s thinking, this role cannot be outsourced or delegated, but rather something that leaders themselves must do.
At the Table Group, we talk a lot about building and maintaining productive or good conflict norms in teams. Good conflict exists between the poles of artificial harmony, where there is little or no conflict, and destructive or bad conflict, which is personal, hides issues and opportunities, and creates emotional hurt. Good conflict is desirable for several reasons:
· It allows people to be and feel heard.
· It can expose risks and opportunities for teams.
· It allows for better decisions.
· It allows team members to commit to decisions more easily.
As a leader facilitating people through a bad conflict, it can be hard to know what to do, so below are three tips or checks you can use during the process. But before you enter the fray with your team members, you should consider four prerequisites for engagement.
Prerequisite one: You must be willing to do whatever you expect your team members to do. If you want them to be vulnerable, you must first be vulnerable. If you want them to suspend judgment of each other, you must first suspend your judgments of them.
Prerequisite two: Allow enough time and space for emotions to calm down and for team members to reflect. When bad conflict arises between people, emotions rise, and feelings are often hurt. In this environment, we need to allow time for emotions to calm. It may also be wise to have both team members retreat from any specific issue driving the bad conflict in the short term.
Prerequisite three: Build each team member’s trust in you. Before people are comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities, they first need psychological safety. They need to feel that you, as a leader, consider them reasonable and valid, and they need to have confidence that you will be balanced in your facilitation of the situation.
Prerequisite four: Ask each team member to engage in the process. To check for a willingness to engage, you need to ask some questions. If there is a willingness, then you can proceed. If you have a team member who isn’t willing or able to feel safe being vulnerable, then it is best not to force them into an unsafe emotional situation. Instead, look for other options, such as providing more support and time or changing the team makeup or structure.
Here are three tips or checks you can use while facilitating your team through a bad conflict.
1. Check for misunderstanding before assuming disagreement.
Sometimes we find ourselves in bad conflict with someone before we are sure that we even disagree with them. An excellent first step is to check for a misunderstanding rather than just accepting that there is a disagreement. I have found that when there is misunderstanding rather than disagreement at the heart of a bad conflict, deeply listening and restating what I have heard repeatedly with both parties can uncover the misunderstandings and evaporate the conflict.
2. Check for misattribution before assuming disagreement.
When we see another person say or do something, we too often try to make sense of what we observe by attributing it to their intention. Consider the statement ‘Alice has a grumpy face because she disagrees with what I am saying.’ In this statement, ‘Alice has a grumpy face’ is an observation, and ‘because she disagrees with what I am saying’ is an attribution. Unfortunately, in our attempts to attribute behavior, we are often wrong. Our attributions are misattributions. Unwinding these misattributions can help resolve bad conflict, but when people see their attributions simply as truth, they can be hard to unwind cognitively. Tools like Working Genius or sharing exercises like Personal Histories can help experientially unwind misattributions by uncovering people’s genuine motivations and intentions.
3. Check whether the disagreement is between needs or plans to meet needs.
We all have unmet needs, and to meet those needs, we come up with plans. Though we enter conflict trying to meet our unmet needs, the points of a conflict are often between incompatible plans rather than between the needs themselves. For example, pretend I need to feel secure in my role and plan to achieve this by refusing to train new people who could replace me. My plan will likely lead to bad conflict, whereas uncovering my need allows us to find a win-win solution. You can often separate plans from needs by simply asking, ‘What will that plan achieve for you?’ or ‘How will that plan change how you feel?’. With the needs visible, you can look for a path forward. Here’s a hint: People often need to feel a certain way rather than have a particular outcome.
There is no set order for using the above checks, and you may skip from point to point as the situation requires. My advice is to listen to what your people are saying, be aware of emotion and trust levels, and use your discretion. In cases where trust is low, you may need to work one-on-one with each team member before sitting together.
In summary, it is the role of responsibility-centered leaders to manage the conflict between people on their team. And whether you succeed using the above points or find another way, the most important takeaway is that you recognise when there is conflict in your team and take action to resolve it. While stepping into the emotional realm of your people is hard, you can be confident that your team will benefit from your efforts.
Pat never said that leadership was easy.