Conflict is a natural occurrence within all teams. Handled properly, it can drive innovation, encourage collaboration, and build relationships. But that doesn’t diminish its status as a dirty word to many companies. These organizations avoid dealing with the messier aspects of team interaction, looking at vulnerability and compromise as unnecessary struggles without any real benefit.
Conflict isn’t inherently negative, but it must be addressed in the right way. Approached head-on, it can be a positive experience, creating a tighter bond within teams. When it’s ignored, however, conflict — over work styles, communication methods, or performance — can boil over and threaten the health of an entire organization.
Early in my career, I was part of a team whose leaders did not clarify roles and responsibilities. These nebulous assignments created tension over time, which we chose to ignore for the sake of “keeping the peace.” Ultimately, the team suffered, good people left the company, and quality work fell by the wayside.
Having the tough conversations early on would have made people uncomfortable, but it also would have helped us grow and do better work. This is where consultants — as neutral and clear outside voices that cut through the din of conflict — can help turn negative interactions within companies into opportunities for positive growth.
The Path to a Better Mindset
In the thick of conflict, it’s difficult to see any light ahead. This is where unbiased outsiders can step in and help. Using outside sources creates a trusting environment where trained professionals can assist the team in developing constructive strategies and action plans to resolve issues.
Consultants can help teams identify and build upon common ground, designing a custom intervention process that can transform conflict into a productive experience that propels the organization forward. Any relationship of this kind follows a familiar path:
- Creating context: Before resolving any conflict, it’s important to establish expectations for the discussion. The consultant will outline the situation, underscoring the common ground shared by the participants and giving the team members feedback on their perceptions. He or she will encourage assertive communication with relationships in mind, reminding participants to stay constructive and treat each other with respect.
- Defining the problem: As opinions diverge, everyone should express their viewpoints without judgment. As grievances are voiced, it’s likely that a trend or theme will emerge. The consultant will clearly state the issue in a way that all members understand, reminding everyone that the focus is on the problem — not the personalities of the people involved.
Starting the Process
- Exploring possible solutions: At this stage, everyone can contribute an idea, no matter how far outside the box it may seem. The most unlikely ideas can sometimes lead to the most creative solutions. Tensions often disappear by themselves as grievances are aired and solutions are proposed. However, if the team needs a way forward, the consultant can propose a decision-making process to arrive at the best solution.
For leaders interested in broaching the subject of conflict resolution, the initial contact with the impacted parties can seem daunting. If you’re facing tension and want to approach the conversation with care, try the following steps:
1. Address tensions directly. When conflict arises, don’t skirt the issue. Confront the parties involved with a positive outlook, and explain that expressing any thoughts and feelings — appropriately — can lead to making the team more productive.
2. Gather firsthand feedback. Before bringing everyone together, speak with each party individually to gain several perspectives on the cause of the tension. Make sure that, along with any emotional information, you discuss the specific facts or events that led up to or inflamed the situation.
3. Encourage compromise with all parties. For the sake of working together, each person must be willing to give a little. Bring everyone in for an open discussion, and encourage every faction to consider meeting the others halfway.
While the involvement of a third party can help smooth things over, the journey to building a constructive, cohesive team starts with its leaders. Managers can set the tone for constructive collaboration by helping their teams see the need for conflict resolution and compromise. It’s scary and uncomfortable, but with the right mindset — and a little help from outside — it’s possible to turn a toxic episode into a springboard for positive change.
Sona Jepsen is the vice president of consultant relations at Fidelity National Information Services (FIS). Her department drives solutions for sales teams in consultant-led opportunities.