At the Edge – Team Conflict Do’s and Don’ts by

Team conflict fighting team members“I don’t want to talk about it, trying to work through this will just make things worse” said the Project Manager, who’s 18-month construction project was beginning to unravel before his eyes. “He doesn’t care about the budget, he just wants to be done.”

He was referring to the project superintendent, his counterpart and the other most senior member of the team accountable for delivering the building on time and within budget. Knowing there are two sides to every story, I went to hear the superintendent’s story.

“All he does is bark at me about the budget as if I am an idiot who doesn’t know we’re falling behind and starting to lose money”, the superintendent said. “Of course I know that. I’m doing everything I can to motivate our subs to finish this project on time, but between time, quality and budget, something’s got to give! I can’t get through to him. I quit trying.”

I talked with other members of the project team. The tension between the PM and Super had spread across the job site like wildfire. Communication and coordination had broken down. Far more energy was spent talking about problems, and who was to blame for them, than working on solutions.

The truth is, when teams get this far down the road of dysfunction, there is little anyone can do to help except to contain the frustration and finger-pointing well enough to allow the project team to limp across the finish line. Ideally we could pull everyone off the job for a few days of intensive listening to unpack the problem and engage in healthy team conflict, but this is not a realistic solution on a construction job.

This team needed to start flexing their conflict muscles months before this break down happened to have any shot at working through the problem. It takes time to build team conflict skills managing skills, both as the sender of difficult information and as the recipient. But feelings like patience, empathy, compassion and openness don’t stand much of a chance when we have to access them in a pressure cooker. Of course, no one in the above real-life example was consciously trying to harm or hurt the project, or one another. In fact, it is likely their desire to keep the peace is one of the reasons they were in so much pain. Teams like this one mistakenly value peace and harmony at the expense of truth telling.

Peace and truth telling aren’t opposite values, but they are paradoxical values; they are both valid and needed but they represent completely different perspectives. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of Teams, management author Patrick Lencioni writes, “Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

In general, having healthy conflict builds great teams – it doesn’t hurt them. Here are a few “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that help make team conflict work.

DO: Find ways to start having and working through team conflict as soon as you can. The more practice they get, the better they will become at doing it well. Give them tools to work through conflict effectively and then make them put those tools into practice so that when real conflict hits, their conflict muscles will be in shape and able to handle it.

DON’T: Gloss over differences or try to make the conflict appear minor. The conflict is what it is, and minimizing it might actually make things worse. Be patient with it and commit to working it out. Unpack both sides of the story and let the conflict stand until a natural resolution presents itself. 

DO: Be committed to the process. In the real-life example above, the PM and the Superintendent were not really committed to working through the issue. They hoped by carefully explaining their side of the story, the other would change their minds. Resolving conflict is a process, not an event.

DON’T: Play the blame game. Make the conflict the topic, not the person or persons who brought it to the surface. Identifying who is to blame should be the LAST thing you do when working through a conflict, never the first. Playing the blame game will always yield at least one result: defensiveness, which disrupts effective conflict resolution.

DO: View team conflict as a way to deepen trust and relationships. Having healthy conflict builds team health. Notice when people start blowing-off or minimizing their own concerns or observations, and coach, encourage and even hold them accountable for talking about disagreements with each other. If someone lacks the confidence or ability to talk about what’s bothering them, support them in having the conversation. Likewise, own YOUR concerns and observations. Avoid statements about “some people,” as in, “some people have a problem with your decision, it’s not my place to say who..” If YOU have a problem, address it. Don’t invoke “some people” in your place.

DON’T: Mistake having healthy conflict for an argument or debate. Arguing or debating are about trying to “win” the who is right game. Resolving a conflict is about finding the best solution or resolution to a problem that works for everyone on the team. Listen to the story of the other side. Listen fully (don’t sit there planning your response). When they’ve described their side of the story, assume there is even more there. Saying, “tell me more,” allows them to think if there is anything else they want to share about their side of the conflict.

DO: Make sure accountability is clear for decisions and results. Nothing paralyzes a team like unclear accountability. If accountability isn’t clear, it’s hard to pinpoint the source of a conflict. For example, if I disagree with your approach to solving a problem, but YOU have accountability for solving it, the decision making process becomes clearer.

Team conflict isn’t a problem, our distaste for it is.

Our colleague Judy Ringer, author of Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict says; “It’s not whether we have conflict in our lives — of course we do — it’s how we manage ourselves in the conflict that makes all the difference. When we avoid dealing with the difficult or blame external circumstances for the problem, we relinquish power. By changing ourselves through awareness and practice, we move from feeling ‘acted upon’ to becoming more conscious actors in our life and work.”

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    4 Responses to "At the Edge – Team Conflict Do’s and Don’ts"

  1. Judy Ringer says:

    Hi Jim, Hi Moe — If we can begin to see conflict as a way in which teams get to know one another, forge elegant solutions, and build stronger relationships and organizations–as you suggest here–what a different world we might create together. Thank you!

    • Jim Morris says:

      We totally agree Judy. Thanks for your work to help rebrand and educate people about conflict, turning it from a bad thing to a necessity for genuine team health.

  2. Mac Hoenicke says:

    Great thoughts Jim thanks. I’d be curious to know your (and others) thoughts on what can be done by executive leadership to facilitate the conversation and productive conflict to resolve the PM and Superintendent’s concerns and frustrations?

    • Jim Morris says:

      Mac, Great question and at the risk of sounding glib, exec. management have to lead by example. Specifically, they need to demonstrate and model a question asking culture that makes it OK for people to challenge assumptions and solutions, and when the going get’s tough, they have to show a willingness to stay with it, bear down and focus on real solutions even when the conversation gets difficult. As you know most people in construction cultures don’t have a difficult time initiatiing conflict, just a difficult time staying with it until they are through it. The other thing they can do is to expect and demand that rigorous, team focused, quarterly discussions of the team’s progress and the individuals on the team’s performance happen and are detailed, specific and actionable.

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