Managing Team Conflict Part I: Building Trust and Integrity

Although most people do not enjoy conflict, experienced managers know that some level of disagreement is inevitable, and can even be beneficial, in the workplace. Groups make better decisions when they consider differing points of view rather than agreeing on everything. Employees need to be able to express discontent and concern, or they may become more dissatisfied with their jobs. Conflict is a natural part of teamwork, and leading your employees through it can be a growth experience for everyone.
Sometimes, however, our teams become disjointed in ways that impede, rather than further, individual and group progress. In his seminal management book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable”, Patrick Lencioni categorizes sources of team conflict into five major types. In this article, we will discuss the first two types, which are also the most difficult to overcome: an absence of trust and a fear of conflict. Understanding these issues can help you “diagnose” the problems facing your team and generate the best solutions to improve group cohesion and individual job satisfaction.

Trust Issues
The source of conflict that can pose the greatest obstacles to a functioning team is an absence of trust. In work environments lacking trust, team members feel unable to ask for help or admit weakness. Problems go unaddressed, and employees spend more time worrying about how they are perceived than the actual quality of their work. Opportunities for collaboration and group problem solving go underutilized, as people continue to view asking for help as a liability.
Leaders in this environment must demonstrate the integrity they expect from their employees. Imagine your team is developing an expansion strategy for a new sales region, and you are leading a meeting to check on the group’s progress. Your own piece of the project, contributing to market research on the new area, has had mixed results, and you have not yet produced all the data needed for the group to move forward. You face a choice to share this with your team or not, and you decide to take the risk and ask for help. This signals to the rest of the team that honesty is a priority, and others who are facing challenges share them as well. With a more accurate picture of the project’s status, the group is able to adjust goals, shift responsibilities around, and increase the likelihood of finishing on time. A leader who is honest about their own successes and challenges sets a positive example and fosters trust.

Fearing the Fight
The second most challenging source of team conflict is, ironically, the fear of conflict itself. Teams characterized by conflict avoidance appear calm on the surface—with boring meetings and repetitive day-to-day interactions—yet grudges and dissatisfaction are brewing beneath the surface. There may be a general awareness of a looming problem, but it is never discussed. Gossip and office politics fester as people look for information but are not open about their worries. All of this detracts from individual job satisfaction and overall productivity.
In this scenario, leaders need to demonstrate openness to group concerns, and create environments where conflict is normalized and issues are freely discussed. For example, imagine that shifts in the characteristics of your clients require a change in the business’s schedule, and daytime employees now work until 6:00pm instead of 5:00pm. Although this was implemented with plenty of notice and the team was on board initially, there have been unforeseen challenges, and some employees are now unhappy that they have to work later in the day. Grumbling and gossip distract everyone from their work and decrease office morale. By holding a group meeting and inviting team members to share concerns and recommend adjustments, they will know their views are taken seriously. Additionally, employees should know their leader’s door is open to discuss concerns one-on-one, when the need arises. These practices will help the group see conflict differently, not as something to avoid but as an opportunity to collaborate and overcome challenges together.
All of us at NiteHawk wish your team the best as you work together to overcome obstacles. Check out next month’s article, where we will review the other three sources of team conflict and the solutions needed to address them.

Lencioni, Patrick. (2002). “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable”. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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