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Team Conflict: Four Ways to Deflate the Discord that’s Killing Your Team

It was supposed to be a simple web project. Our client needed a site that would allow users to create, deploy and review survey results. Aside from some APIs that weren’t done, I wasn’t very worried about the project. I was surprised that my product manager was spending so much time at the client’s office.

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Then, she explained the problem. It seemed that the leaders of product, UX and engineering didn’t speak to each other and, as a result, she had to walk from office to office getting information and decisions.

When two people have a bad interaction, they can work it out or let the conflict grow, spreading it to other team members and their leaders. When two people have a bad interaction, they can work it out or let the conflict grow, spreading it to other team members and their leaders.
When two people have a bad interaction, they can work it out or let the conflict grow, spreading it to other team members and their leaders.

The conflicts probably started small. One bad interaction, then another, then people don’t like each other, then teams don’t work together well. The small scrape becomes a festering wound that slows things down, limits creativity and lowers morale.

Somehow as a kid working my way through school I discovered I had a knack for getting around individuals or groups that were fighting with each other. I simply figured out who I needed to help me accomplish a task, and I learned how to convince, cajole or charm them into doing it. I went on to teach these skills to my teams.

That sufficed for a while. But as I became a department head and an adviser to my clients, I realized it’s not enough to make it work. I needed to learn how to make it better. I needed to find a way to stop the infighting I’ve seen plague organizations my entire career. I needed to put aside my tendency to make the quick fix and have hard conversations.

It’s messy, awkward and hard for team leaders to resolve conflict but the results are absolutely worth it. You don’t need a big training program, a touchy-feely retreat or an expensive consultant. Team members or team leads don’t have to like each other. What they have to do is find common ground, a measure of respect for one another, and a willingness to work together to benefit the project.

Here are four ways to approach the problem.

Start talking

No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.
Gerald M. Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully

Resist the urge to wait for the perfect time to address team conflict. There’s no such thing. There will always be another deadline, another rollout, another challenge to be met.

In our office, a UX designer and product manager were having trouble getting along. Rather than take responsibility, they each blamed our “process” and said we needed to clarify roles and procedures. In other words, they each wanted to be deemed “in charge” of the project. Certainly I could have taken that bullet and begun a full-on assessment of our processes and structure. By taking the blame for a bad company framework, I could have dodged some difficult conversations.  But I knew our process wasn’t the problem.

First, I coached the product manager to be vulnerable, not an easy thing for him to do. I asked him to share his concerns and his desire to have a more productive relationship with the UX designer. The PM’s willingness to be uncomfortable and open about his concerns lifted the tension. Once he acknowledged the elephant in the room—namely that the UX designer was not happy working with him—the designer became more willing to risk being honest. Eventually, they were able to find a solution to their disagreements on the project, largely because they were willing to give each other a measure of respect.

The worst thing I’ve seen is when leaders move people from team to team hoping that they will magically find a group of people that work well together, and work well with them. Sometimes the relocated team members have no idea that their behavior or performance isn’t acceptable. Instead of solving the problem, this just spreads the dissatisfaction.

Instead, be clear right from the beginning that you want teams that will be open about challenges, feel safe discussing conflicts, and be accountable for solving them.

Have a clear purpose

Although many aspects of our collective endeavor are open for discussion, choice of mountain is not among them.
J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances

I was working on an enterprise CMS re-design and re-platform. Our weekly review and estimation sessions were some of the most painful meetings of my career. There was no trust or shared purpose—even estimating a simple task was a big fight.

When purpose and priorities are murky you are likely to find conflict. When the team doesn’t know what mountain they are trying to climb, they tend to focus on the parts of the project that are most relevant to them. With each team member jealously guarding his or her little ledge, it’s almost impossible to have cooperation.

This assault on productivity is likely because the project objective is non-existent, or muddled nonsense, or so broad the team doesn’t see how it can have an impact. Or, maybe the objective is a moving target, constantly shifting.

Size can be a factor.  I’ve seen enterprise teams with clear missions and startups with such world-changing objectives they can’t figure out how to ship something that costs less than a million dollars.

When I’m meeting with prospects or new clients I look at three areas to see if they are having this problem:

  • What language do they use to describe each other? Disconnected teams say “UX thinks,” “The dev team” or “product wants.” Unified teams say “we.”
  • How easy or hard is task estimation? Disconnected teams fight about the level of difficulty. United teams talk about tradeoffs and argue about what’s best for the product or customers.
  • Can they easily and consistently describe their purpose? Disconnected teams don’t have a crisp and consistent answer. Unified teams nod their heads when one of their members shares a concise answer.

If a team is disconnected, it’s likely because you haven’t given them a common goal. A single email or a fancy deck isn’t enough. Make your objectives simple and repeat them so much that the team groans every time you start.

Plan conversations

Words do not sit in our brains in isolation. Each word is surrounded by its own connotations, memories and associations
Simon Lancaster, Winning Minds: Secrets From the Language of Leadership

Years ago I was frustrated to tears by a manager who, I felt, took from me the product I spent two years building. I knew I needed to talk with him but I struggled to find a productive way to tell him why I was upset.  (Telling someone he is being a jackass is not productive.)

A good friend in HR helped me script the conversation. It had three parts:

  • I really work well when…
  • This situation is bothering me because…
  • What I’d like to see happen is…

Leaders have an important role to play in resolving issues. When a leader decides that their person is right and another person is wrong it turns a team problem into an organization problem. Instead we should should provide perspective, context and show how actions could be misunderstood.

Leaders also need to quickly, clearly and strongly call about bad behavior. When I found out one of my people raised their voice at a colleague, I made it clear that wasn’t acceptable and shouldn’t happen again. He admitted that he lost his cool, apologized and then we started working on the resolving the situation.

Require accountability

Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.
General Colin Powell,former U.S. Secretary of State

If you have a problem and you go to Holly Paul, an inspiring HR leader, you can expect that she will listen. You can also expect that she’ll work with you on a plan to resolve it. Most importantly you can expect she will make sure you are doing what you said you’d do when you said you would do it.

Before I met Holly I would listen to problems then try to go solve them. Now I work with the person and tell them that I will be checking back with them, often putting the reminder in my calendar during the conversation so I don’t forget.

Since I started focusing on fixing conflict, I’ve seen great changes on my team. Many of them have started for the first time dealing with the people, fixing their issues and forging much stronger relationships. Our team is stronger and having a greater influence on the organization.

It’s messy, awkward and hard. I’ve been working on this for a long time and I still make mistakes. I still don’t always want to push when I meet resistance. This will never be easy, but it will be worth it and it’s your responsibility as a leader. For however long these people are with you, you need to make them better as individuals and a unit.

You don’t need a big training, a touchy-feely retreat or an expensive consultant. You just need to start doing the work every day. The rest will come.

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