Working with Teams in Conflict

If you have ever worked within a team that was in conflict, then you know how bad it can get. You don’t want to go to work, you probably don’t trust the people you work with, and you may feel exhausted, anxious and angry.  Many teams go through periods of conflict, and some teams go through periods where the whole working environment can feel absolutely toxic.  A team in this situation needs assistance to work effectively together.  The worst thing a manager can do is ‘let them be’ and hope they will work it out themselves.  However, even the best managers find these situations very difficult to navigate.  

As a manager, you are probably receiving contradictory stories and perspectives, and you may very well be dealing with multiple claims of bullying and harassment that need to be investigated.  Invariably, you will be working with very strong emotions, including anger, hurt and fear.  Most managers are quite fearful of making a wrong move in this situation, yet they have the strong urge to ‘shake things up’.  Many managers feel very frustrated because they can’t understand what is going on in this complex web of ‘he said/she said’, and it can feel like all of the team’s time and effort is going into managing the conflict with no real work being achieved.  This is usually the case, as the team dynamics exhaust almost all of the team’s energy and resources.  

So as a manager, what can you do to address the team conflict and start to shift the team to a more healthy and productive working space?  Here’s a few guidelines below:

1.    Work with your HR team to investigate any claims of bullying and harassment as a priority, and provide feedback on the outcomes of these investigations quickly.  It is a common mistake to draw out these investigations in the hope that things will ‘settle down’ on their own.
2.    Provide a safe avenue for each team member to express strong emotions and feel heard.  You may need to bring an external consultant in to support you in this process.  Now is the time to be highly cognisant of each team member’s mental health and wellbeing, and how the current workplace environment affects this.
3.    Once emotions have been heard and acknowledged (and only after this has happened), you can start to work with the team to identify the behaviours that are weakening the team.  What’s critical here is that it is the behaviours, not the people.  When this process is managed well, the team start to recognise the myriad of behaviours each and every one of them may be contributing to the conflict.  When this process is managed poorly, it results in a ‘blame game’ and team dynamics can deteriorate further.
4.    Progress the team from problem saturation to solution focus.  What sort of team do we want to be, or what sort of team were we at our best?  What are some alternative behaviours that would strengthen the team?  Which behaviours can we all commit to?
5.    Agree on and set some shared team expectations.  Importantly, the team need to talk about what they will do if they get it wrong sometimes – because they will!  Encourage them to manage conflict early themselves where possible, before escalating issues.
6.    CRITICAL: The Team Leader or Manager must be equipped and supported to monitor and act on set team expectations.  This is a difficult situation for any manager, and it is critical that they have internal or external coaching and support to ensure they can provide feedback, address conflict early, and navigate difficult conversations in the workplace.
7.    Utilising tools that build self and other awareness can be very helpful.  Tools such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Belbin Team Role Profiles and Emotional Intelligence Profiles can be helpful in understanding our intra-personal and inter-personal style, and increasing our flexibility when working with others.  But these tools are not enough on their own, and they may actually cause more problems if they are not appropriately facilitated.

Managers who work with teams in conflict are navigating difficult waters.  However, when they are able to guide themselves and their team through this process, they come out of this being much stronger and more resilient managers.