With tight deadlines, limited resources, high expectations, and differing personalities, it’s easy for the members of a group or team to get caught up in conflict. But, for most groups, conflict is both preventable and resolvable.
Conflict can percolate at a variety of degrees. When we think of conflict, many people might immediately think of the long-running, entrenched conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, inner-city gangs, or between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. capitol.
And yet many work-related groups operate with unresolved conflicts simmering beneath the surface. Even if such conflicts never erupt to the surface, they can still drain a group’s brilliance, creativity, productivity, and morale. A lack of harmony has many costs, whether we recognize them or not.
What distinguishes good conflict from corrosive conflict? What are some of the symptoms that neglected conflicts are simmering beneath the surface in your group? And what can you do to prevent or resolve such conflicts?
Good conflict and bad conflict
Not all conflict is negative, but to truly understand what this means, we need more information. Perhaps a more accurate way of referring to “good conflict” is to say that spirited discussions, debates, and differences of opinion and perspective can energize a group towards a higher potential than is likely if the members of a group are carbon-copies and rarely disagree.
As in Nature, innovation and creativity arise out of chaos and friction, not complacency and status quo. The same is true of a high-performance group (or individual, for that matter). Innovation and brilliance require a different breeding ground in which the norms are disregarded, questioned, renewed or reworked.
Artists, inventors, explorers, and entrepreneurs, for example, often “march to a different drummer,” ignoring or criticizing mainstream norms and refusing complacency. This type of “wildness” can seem, to some people, like conflict because it upsets their comfortable status quo. Yet without it, there would be no advances, progress, innovation, or evolution. In this case, then, “good conflict” leads to creativity and positive breakthroughs.
What, then, characterizes potentially destructive conflict? Corrosive conflict occurs when one or several parties feel unseen, unheard, or unappreciated. This more negative brand of conflict may stem from a leadership void, unclear roles and priorities, and/or a lack of a unifying principle, purpose or process. It may result from the presence of too many assumptions, and too few agreements. It may occur when one or several of the parties involved behaves in a manner different from what the group believes they agreed upon or think should be happening. It may begin to fester if the group devolves into what would be considered unskillful or immature “acting out.” And it is often marked by unskillful or disrespectful communication.
Symptoms of corrosive conflict
Destructive conflict often hints of its existence long before a more hostile, public eruption occurs. There are symptoms which, if ignored, lead to more serious, more costly, and sometimes more violent results. In many cases, a sensitive person or keen observer can literally feel the conflict simmering or see “between the lines” that all is not well with a group.
A skillful leader or a skillful, caring group member will always take steps to prevent conflict, or resolve it as soon as early symptoms begin to appear. Unfortunately, many leaders and team members unwittingly contribute to conflict by trying to avoid it — by ignoring the symptoms — because they don’t feel they have the interpersonal tools to broach the subject or resolve the conflict skillfully.
How does corrosive conflict show itself? Here are a few common symptoms that indicate that a conflict is brewing or blazing, and that there is a need for stronger leadership, constructive dialogue, and other preventative or resolution-oriented interventions:
- Differing opinions that are not explored in constructive dialogue, and that are not leading to agreements about what priorities the group sets or what actions its members take;
- Behind-the-scenes alliance-building or factions developing among group members. Certain group members seek to create alliances with other group members outside of, and often not including other members of, the group as a whole;
- Behind-the-scenes frustration shared between several group members about a member, or members, of the group who are not present in the conversation;
- Action being taken by one or several group members that the group as a whole has not discussed and agreed upon;
- Differing opinions, or a lack of understanding, about the roles of each group member, particularly when associated with the perception that one or more group members are exceeding or not fulfilling their role as understood by other group members;
- Regular absences of group members at meetings and key discussions, or participation marked by frustrated silence, preoccupation, late arrival or early departure, etc.
- Meetings or discussions marked by complaints that are not addressed, ideas that are not explored, questions that are not answered, or agenda items that are raised but not brought to any conclusion;
- Efforts by some group members to dismiss another group member from the group without any open dialogue;
- Perceptions that some group members are making “power plays” at the expense of other group members and/or the group’s mission and effectiveness;
- Inefficiencies or a marked lack of organizational skills by one group member, resulting in other group members feeling frustrated that time and resources are being squandered;
- Personalities, not common purpose, become the center point of the group’s attention and energy;
- A leadership void that results in the group breaking into factions, each of which holds a different perspective on the group’s purpose and priorities, and which wants to take, or is taking, steps towards their own agenda.
These are just some of the scenarios which can indicate that the group is descending into more serious conflict, that it is not meeting its fuller potential because of unresolved issues that are creating conflict, and that stronger leadership and conflict-resolution interventions are required to get the group reoriented to a shared purpose and agreed-upon process.
Strategies for conflict resolution
If these or other conflict symptoms are present in your group, there are several key steps that can help address the issues that are creating conflict, and get the group back on track. Here are several, which are most effective if combined:
- Stronger leadership. If conflict has simmered to the point that symptoms are evident, there is a need for stronger, clearer leadership in the group. This is the case whether there is a designated leader, or whether it is a self-organized collaborative group without a formal leader. A leadership void must be filled, and conflict often arises when it is filled unskillfully or without the agreement of the group. Whether formal or informal, a leader must step forward, at least until the conflicts have been addressed and the group has reoriented around a common purpose and agenda. The leader would call the group together with a skilled facilitator for an open, skillful dialogue that results in a shared understanding of the group’s purpose and priorities, and the group members’ roles.
- Clear purpose. When a group devolves into unproductive conflict, there is room to assume that all or some of the group members have forgotten the group’s higher purpose. When the individuals in a group begin to operate individually, moving in conflicting directions or inappropriately exercising unhealthy or unprofessional personality traits, there is a need to regroup, discuss, and agree upon the group’s core reason for being and its highest priorities for the near-term.
- Skillful dialogue. Constructive dialogue can be informal, facilitated by a skillful communicator or leader, or it can be more formally convened and facilitated by a professional who is not affiliated with the group. Such a dialogue differs from “everyday conversation” in that it is called for a specific purpose related to, in this case, bringing issues into the open, sharing perspectives about what’s going on, and ensuring that all group members feel heard by the group. Dialogue is particularly helpful when a conflict has simmered to the point that reorientation around shared mission is not possible without first resolving hurt feelings, unheard perspectives, etc.
- Clarified roles, goals and processes. Conflict can arise not just because one of the group members has “gone rogue,” but also because roles, goals, and working processes were never clearly discussed or agreed upon in the first place. Again, if a group is mired in conflict (whether it’s open or stewing beneath the surface), a skillful leader or unaffiliated facilitator will be required to guide the group through the airing of core issues and the reorientation towards clarified roles, goals, and processes for working together toward its shared purpose.
- Skills coaching. Because the group may have been operating in a state of unresolved or festering conflict for a period of time, it is wise to see the resolution and reorientation as going beyond one or two meetings. Whether the role falls to the group’s leader, or to a consultant or coach who can work with the group in making the more healthy ways of working “stick,” make sure you clearly assign a “progress monitor” who has — with the group’s agreement — the authority to regularly check in with each group member and the group as a whole, and who has the authority to provide counsel and coaching to keep the group on its renewed mission and away from the old, conflict-producing norms.
- Respectful communication. Because it’s likely that the conflict resulted from, or at least produced, a state of unskillful, disrespectful communication, the group will need to agree upon communication guidelines and ideals so that each group member is clear about how to interact more skillful with the others in the group. It’s possible to have some coaching for the group, and more indepth coaching for specific group members whose communication skill (or lack of) has been identified as particularly problematic. Once the conflict has been resolved and the group has been reoriented, ensure that there is a clear plan for ongoing communications, so the group operates regularly on a foundation of shared understanding and common agreement.
Strategies for prevention
Most of the conflict-resolution interventions above can easily be converted into preventative measures by practicing skillful leadership and communication, and having clear purpose, roles, and processes identified and agreed upon by your group before conflict begins to corrode the group’s momentum, morale, productivity, and sense of shared purpose.
In the case of conflict, it’s really true that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” because once conflict takes root, there can be costs — tangible and intangible — that are beyond the group’s ability to pay for them. In cases where conflict has too long gone unresolved, where the need for skillfulness has been neglected, the group may have to be reorganized and it may take some time to reorient the group and regain a sense of momentum and productivity. Often, the real costs of prevention are far less than the actual costs of corrosive conflict, and preventative measures are much more lasting than are situational conflict interventions.
By aiming to prevent destructive conflict by way of strong leadership, skillful communication, and clear purpose and process, the group’s energy and creativity can instead be focused on progressing towards its mission, accomplishing its goals, and serving its constituencies.
This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.
© 2004 – 2014, Jamie Walters. All rights reserved.