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Lean in to team conflict
The Public Manager. 43.2 (Summer 2014): p63+.
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When we don't address conflict, it can escalate and damage relationships and work. To resolve discord, manage behaviors, understand differences, and listen.

Many of us dislike conflict and prefer to avoid it rather than confront it. It's emotional and unpleasant. It is also misunderstood, and as a result, most of us do not develop strategies to deal with it. If we don't learn how to deal with conflict, the danger is that when conflict arises, the situation will soon escalate into something destructive that causes long-term damage to relationships and teamwork.

When we work on a team, conflict is inevitable. Team members must acknowledge that conflict will occur and agree on ways to address and resolve conflict as soon as possible so that all parties involved, directly and indirectly, can re-establish productivity.

Clashing Behaviors, Managing Differences

Conflict is not the result of clashing personalities. In fact, personalities don't clash, behaviors do! Different people can work together for a long time without having conflict until their behaviors conflict. Differentiating personality from behavior makes conflict manageable.

Conflict, at its simplest definition, is difference of opinion. Most people don't recognize that these differences can be positive. The ability to make use of differences in a healthy way often leads to learning opportunities, new discoveries, and innovative solutions. The key to success is how teams constructively manage differences and avoid negativity.

Personality Profiles

Understanding and appreciating different personalities among group members is important, but it does not necessarily prevent conflict. Personality tests are very popular in human resource management. Many organizations invest significant time and resources in having staff participate in personality assessments, hoping the results will promote individual awareness, heighten sensitivity to diversity, enhance group interactions, and reduce conflict.

Personality profiling systems inform people about their own personality characteristics and enable them to become sensitive to others' results. This is great information to have when establishing or joining teams.

Many teams, however, do not have the luxury of indulging in such assessments, and business demands don't allow them to delve deeply into personality analytics. Today's teams are often thrust together and expected to get the job done quickly. As a result, most teams form using these common understandings:

* Everyone on the team is unique, with distinctive personalities and working styles.

* Teams must anticipate conflict.

* We should identify ways to mitigate discord with which everyone can live.

When teams acknowledge they will face conflict and find simple ways to deal with conflict and move on, they are more likely to take conflict in stride than be derailed by it. Conflict, when managed well, can lead to learning and growth for teams. It can be a stimulus for new ideas and solutions that otherwise might not be identified.

Blowing Off Steam--Like a Train

In the heat of conflict, it is common to "blow off steam." But steam can be a positive source of renewed energy. When used properly, steam can propel a train, so just think of what it can do for a team!

Teams must establish a conflict resolution process that is acceptable for everyone on the team. The process should be simple and easy to follow regardless of what type of conflict is experienced. In most cases, a four-step process such as the following is all that is needed:

1. Individuals will try to resolve the conflict with each other.

2. If two individuals cannot resolve the conflict, the team leader will intervene.

3. If the team leader cannot facilitate resolution, an outside facilitator will mediate.

4. Once the conflict is resolved, other team members will be apprised of the outcome.

When conflict arises during a team meeting, address the issue as soon as possible. If the conflict has nothing to do with the topic at hand, defer it to a later time. If the disagreement gets overheated, take a break and let everyone cool off.

Parties involved in conflict often use the defend-attack approach, which includes defending one's self by attacking the other party. A defend-attack occurs when differences of opinion become emotionally heated and behaviors are used to attack or make an emotional defense. The result, regardless of who attacks or defends is the same--the exchange deteriorates into a series of accusations and counteraccusations that are negative and destructive.

Think back to the last time you were in some kind of disagreement. Regardless of the words you were using, you were really saying, "Listen to me, and understand my point of view and the way I am feeling so you will recognize my point of view and the way I am feeling and then acknowledge that my point of view is valid so we can move forward." Both parties are struggling to be understood but neither is listening to understand.

Listening Is the Key

Without a willingness to listen to each other and to try to understand each other's positions and feelings, the conflict will heighten. Listening is the key to avoiding conflict in defend-attack situations. When both parties are eager to be heard, seen, and valued, it is important that you begin by being first to understand and then be understood. In other words, listening is the key to avoiding conflict and defend-attack situations.

There are many behaviors associated with the defend-attack situations. When in a conflict event, it is important to maintain your cool to manage the situation at its lowest level.

* Never blame, ridicule, or belittle the other person even if done defensively.

* Address the issue promptly. The quicker the issue or behavior is addressed, the easier it is to have the conversation.

* Be the first to stop talking and listen to fully understand.

* Respond with empathy. This can be done when you ask yourself, "How are they feeling about what they are saying?"

* Wait four seconds after the person finishes. This will give you time to consider your reaction.

Lastly, consider offering a "feelings commentary." This is an extremely effective way of building trust, strengthening relationships, and communicating openly and assertively. Instead of attacking someone by saying, "You make me angry," take ownership of the situation by expressing your feelings. For example, say, "I am feeling quite uncomfortable about what happened at our last meeting." Or, "I am worried about how to proceed from this point, and I welcome any suggestions you may have."

One of the key features is its tendency to escalate until each side tries to defeat the other. Each party needs to take responsibility for their behaviors and actions. This can only happen if both parties are willing to look objectively at the reality of the situation, including what has happened and what is currently going on.

Adopt the One-Day Rule

Teams can effectively manage conflict when they adopt the "one-day rule." It is a great way to handle conflict and to address contention among teammates. It offers quick resolution to one-on-one conflict and helps to resolve discord by dealing with the disagreement directly and professionally, allowing you to regain composure before addressing the other party but not letting the conflict linger too long.

Basically, it requires waiting exactly one day from the initial point of conflict and encourages you to address and resolve the conflict within a day of the incident. In other words, give yourself enough time to cool off, but do not wait longer than 24 hours to resolve the conflict. This is important, because the more quickly you resolve the conflict the more likely you are to maintain the conflict at its lowest level.

Although dealing with conflict directly and immediately is a good course of action, there are times when avoidance or delay works better. For a variety of reasons, you know your current state of mind will not work toward resolving the conflict. You need to avoid the issue until you can focus on it fully and calmly. The one-day rule suggests you wait a while until you react or respond to a squabble.

If you feel your blood rising or your pulse quickening, and your breath shortening, apply the one-day rule by saying, "Let me think about this. Can we talk tomorrow?" This response beats the finger you were about to point back in their direction.

Waiting a day before reacting is particularly useful when communicating by email. Sometimes our fingers have a way of working before our brains think things through. Nothing is worse than regretting your actions immediately after clicking "send" during a heated email exchange.

In some circumstances, we need time to cool down and think things through and cool down to be at our best. When you take the time to calm down, you can validate the real issue at hand and address it with appropriate actions and response. Take 24 hours to ensure you act or respond appropriately.

Tips for the One-Day Rule

* Listen closely and try to understand each others' position.

* Own your involvement in the conflict, regardless of who initiated the dispute.

* Consider personal differences; some feel uncomfortable with direct confrontation.

* Adopt the one-day rule as the team's conflict resolution strategy during the Rules of Engagement exercise.

* Keep the conflict between you and the other party.

* If unable to reach a resolution, seek help from the team leader or an outside facilitator.

Lisa DiTullio is principal of Your Project Office, a PMI-registered education provider and consulting organization dedicated to introducing project management as a business competency and enabling organizations to improve decision making, instill accountability, and enhance communications. Contact her at

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
DiTullio, Lisa. "Lean in to team conflict." The Public Manager, Summer 2014, p. 63+. Business Collection, Accessed 24 Jan. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A373033637