Well managed conflict can foster creativity within teams. Differing perspectives, passionately and constructively debated, force members to think more critically, potentially leading to better decisions. But when conflict becomes personal, it erodes the bonds of trust and the sense of shared purpose that teams need in order to be effective. To minimize conflict, project managers must establish basic ground rules for debate and help colleagues understand competing viewpoints.
Identifying the Source
First, it's essential to isolate the source of the conflict. Communication barriers top the list. Poor listening, incomplete information, ambiguity, misinterpretation and disregard of nonverbal cues can wreak havoc on team cohesiveness. Effective communication is a two-part process - speaking and open-minded listening - each of equal importance. It's also important to recognize that messages pass through personal filters, which are sometimes influenced by insecurity, anxiety or poor self-esteem.
Setting Ground Rules
Whatever the cause -- opposing opinions, unclear purpose or personality clashes -- project managers can't allow team interactions to be crippled by unconstructive criticism, personal attacks or passive aggression. At the first suggestion of deteriorating team dynamics, they must refocus everyone on their common goal and establish clear guidelines for acceptable behavior.
Here are tips that have proven successful for many of our clients:
- Concentrate discussion on business issues, and be clear that personal disagreements are inappropriate and irrelevant.
- Create an environment that welcomes all perspectives and where each contribution is evaluated on its own merit, regardless of "sponsor." As the manager, it may be helpful to paraphrase the comments of someone who is being misunderstood or abrasive.
- Provide structure. It can be useful to allocate a few minutes for each team member to offer ideas and opinions. Be sure that each individual is given equal time.
- Establish "civility" ground rules for conference calls and meetings. Examples include: no interrupting, no snickering and no personal attacks. Ensure that everyone agrees to these rules.
- Lead by example by being open-minded and patient. Listen attentively and facilitate constructive critiques.
- Ask clarifying questions before responding.
- Agree to disagree, but be a team player. While it's not always necessary to concur with a decision, it's still important to cooperate and collaborate.
Cost of Unresolved Conflict
If conflict is left unresolved, it causes more than hurt feelings. In the interest of moving forward, some well-intentioned team members may assume additional responsibilities, but such workarounds can lead to missed deadlines and budget overages. Resentment often builds, poisoning other projects.
Ignoring conflict rarely works. It will fester and cripple your team. Face it down dispassionately and, in the process, you'll contribute to the professional development of your colleagues.
Please share the experiences and approaches that have been successful for you!