Tension and conflict in the team

Tension and conflict in the team affects everyone.  

It causes extreme misery at work  And that misery then flows on into productivity, initiative, positive interactions with customers, clients and stakeholders.  It flows home as well, infesting other interactions with carried over resentments that can’t be safely expressed where they really exist.

These situations often slide on at work because there isn’t capacity (knowledge and skill) or courage (willingness) to address it and without set boundaries, bad behaviour is effectively endorsed and escalates.

The conflict can arise from many sources.  It can be a function of unhelpful systems and structures in the workplace that can’t be challenged – or because there is a belief they can’t be challenged.

Conflict may arise as a symptom of cultural norms that wittingly or unwittingly exclude and isolate some players.  The way things are done, the way we deal with each other as modelled from the top, the way decisions are made or the practices of interaction, may be setting the scene for problems.

Or there may be issues that relate to the social interactions, the personalities at play, their expectations and confirmation bias, the social power in who’s who and who knows who in the system. This is about allegiances, alliances, the existence of the In Group and the reasons for this.

Often these factors are not wholly visible to those inside the system…like a fish in the ocean who does not notice the ocean.

Let’s look at some ways to deal with risky situations, the ones where you have a problem with someone and you can’t let it go.  It’s eating at you, upsetting you, stealing emotional and intellectual energy. It is your problem now, so you need to take some action.

There is no one silver bullet that solves everything all the time.  Humans are way too complicated and messy for that.  And all conflict occurs in a context – these factors of personal and environmental influences are all intertwined. That’s why conflict resolution is an art – a balance of self awareness, skills and practice.

There is nothing that will fix the thing if you don’t do something different. Break the unhelpful pattern.

So it relies on you taking some thoughtful action, after reflecting on your own situation, feelings and working out what you really need – not just some superficial solution.  If you do go for solving just the symptoms, you can be sure the whole damn thing will come up again, in some other form.

Let’s look at some tools to try out.

Finding a solution does start with you.

Let’s ask what is it that you want? What do you really want here?  You certainly know what you do NOT want.  So give some attention now to working out what you DO want. Know what you want to achieve as a satisfactory result.

For you? What do you want for yourself?

For them? What would you like to happen for them?  In kindness.

For the way you relate with each other? Ideally. What would be good.

Thinking about your problem, what do you want, here?

Why do you want that?

And what else do you want?

And what else?

And what else….?

Answer the questions thoughtfully and fully.  Notice what is going on in your body when you think about this situation. Why? Because the body will not lie about how we really feel – it speaks in your gut, your chest, your throat.  Notice it and sit in that for a bit.

Often we are responding to some symptom of the real problem – the fear or need or belief that is feeling at risk here in this situation.  Your body will know this, holds it secretly inside.  If you pay attention you can get into the thing that really is driving the anger or sadness or irritation or whatever.

When you get answers that come up as negatives, that is, what you don’t want, put them into the positive. What you do want.  It’s very easy to fall into describing the negative, that thing we do not want.  Instead, try to describe the ideal situation that you would want.  

Also: I want Them to leave is not usually a practical answer – although it is in the positive!

Taking responsibility for the problem means digging for the information and understanding of what is your underlying driver: fear or need.  If you don’t address that, then the problem will keep coming back to you in other forms.  It will be a cycle of arguments or incidents that keep returning simply because you have been dealing with the symptoms of the problem and not the true underlying issue that you have with this situation or individual.

Getting a handle on what is the real driver for you, gives you more power to do something that will really help you instead of messing in the nest. Creating a worse problem through unhelpful action, well, that does not get what you want.

You have to be willing to take this responsibility.

You may need some courage, to do something new.  With uncertain result.

It helps to have some curiosity about things that may be unexpected or unusual.

It helps to be open to hearing a different story, maybe.

And taking some action.

Take some action

Keep in mind always, what it is that you want.  Not the superficial distraction that’s got your attention.  What is that attached to, underneath the obvious. Try to have that clear before you open your mouth: what you really want, as a result, for you, for them, for the relationship.  It guides the way you get your words together.  It can fundamentally change the strategy.

Once you have it clear in your mind, what it is you really want and why, you have you a goal.  A good goal.

That goal can give you some new ideas about how to approach your situation.  It can change the conversation, the approach.

With a clear goal, now you are talking about the solution to the problem, or how to find it, instead of blaming/criticising/attacking a person for the pain you are feeling.   It shifts the focus of the communication.

Focus on what you want.  Know what you do want before you begin.

State your factual observations about what is happening, without all the colour and movement that comes with judgment, criticism and accusation.

Leave out these words  – you always, you never.  These words weaken your position.  Firstly, because they are generally untrue.  Secondly, they are a flag that you haven’t yet understood what is the underlying burn.

Stick with statements about what you can see, what you heard, what you experienced? Facts.  Not hear-say.  Not rumour.  Not story.  Hard facts only.

This can be harder than you might think, so practice the art of framing what you want to say and using words to convey the facts without the emotional loading.  Find ways to make clear neutral statements.

It is important to leave out the terms that create barriers. That create automatic resistance and defence.

We all want to stay safe and feel accepted.  We all want to be assured that the things that matter to us are not under attack.  When people start to use labels, which are loaded terms then it inspires push-back.  It inspires a counter response instinctively as they try to stay safe.

Labels create walls.  As do other terms that are loaded with negative meaning: criticism, judgment, assessment, bias.  More about that later.

You stole the money.

Yeah, as a starting statement…probably not helpful. What would anyone’s response be? You can predict it, I am sure.  “Stole” is a loaded term, loaded with criticism, judgment, accusation when there may be an alternative explanation.

I have noticed money missing from my wallet tonight.

Better.  Just start with the observable facts.  Think about what result you want – a working relationship.  Your money back.  Or some acceptable explanation.  It’s just a story in your head till you get the facts so don’t let this hijack emotions into action before you check it out.

I never get these reports on time.  You are always late. 

Focus here is unhelpfully on the negative and these blanket statements are loaded with attack.  You can predict a response.  Push-back.  Escalation. Anything with ‘you’ in it and a threatening or critical tone is going to get a likely negative reaction.  Change the focus to the facts and what you want.

I need these reports on my desk on time. 

Yes. It’s not a personal attack on the report writer because attacking language, the blame, accusation, criticism has been avoided – it is now about solving the problem of getting reports on time.

Just state the facts.  Framed in the positive towards what you DO want.  Ask for what you do want.

It adds weight to the problem solving if you can state how the observed facts are impacting on you.

How do they affect you?  Depending on your situation, on how safe the context feels for you, you can state the impact in a practical way.  You can stick with describing the material effect this situation has on you – without attack.  And play out in words the consequences for you, for others, for the other person – this is a part of the story of impacts.

Or you can tentatively, carefully, cautiously state the interpretation that you have reached about the observable facts, that may be threatening.  You can advance the story that you have about what the observable facts mean as long as it is put forward as a possible, logical explanation based on the observations.

Your story might be wrong; you are testing your story with them by asking their view of things.  When you put forward your explanation, it needs to be done with the tone and manner that conveys that this story you have, might be wrong.  It needs to be communicated clearly that you have this story because of the way you have lined things up in your mind. Observed things.  Experienced things. An explanation. Logical, understandable.  In a tentative, neutral manner, you can say what you are thinking might be going on in case there just might be a very reasonable alternative explanation.

You can also go to the emotional impact.  This also shows the link between what happened, how you experienced or interpreted that and why it is a problem for you.  It is a very strong way of building connection.  Stating how these observable events make you feel, the anger, the irritation, the grief or whatever emotional damage you feel this is doing to you.  State the stress or distress it is causing at some level.  This can be very influential in building relationship.

This phase, whether impacts, consequences, feelings or the tentative check of a threatening interpretation is where you place the focus on the issues leading to your concern.  This shows the logic in your response. The focus is clearly on the problem, not the person.

It helps greatly if you can avoid using the word “you” in this process because that word immediately prompts alarm signals for the other person, alert for possible threat.  It signals attack. Avoiding “you” might seem a bit precious, but it also avoids the auto-protect mechanism we all have inside us, to defend, straightup.  “You” followed by anything that might be thought to be an attack or criticism or threat will be more likely to draw a reaction from that person, rather than a response.  It shuts down rather than opens up conversation.

There is a need for some resilience.

The more self-aware a person is in noticing what is going on inside themselves, the less the risk of negative reaction happening – but even the most self-aware have bad moments and undue sensitivity on certain issues.  All of us, have something that will make us feel unsafe – angry.

With more self knowledge and awareness of what bothers us at a fundamental level – what fears, needs or beliefs really are hard-wired into our Self – the more capacity we have for resilience in difficult situations. Some call it maturity, some call it grace, some call it wisdom or self control – but it all reflects personal capacity. When we have areas of weakness or moments of weakness we react without thinking about what is really happening, really driving us.

This reaction is not thought through and less logical.

It helps to focus on the problem and not the person.  It doesn’t trigger the protection reaction.  It is more likely to bring a response.  A response is more rational than a reaction.  A response deals with the problem separately from the person and helps to avoid an escalation caused by that instinct of punching back.

Good communication.  What you observe.  Why this matters to you.  What’s happening for them. What you need or want. No threat, no attack, no criticism so no defence should be required.  Instead, create a plan.

I have money missing from my wallet tonight. I had a $50 note there when I paid the delivery guy for pizza earlier and now it isn’t there. I am wondering if that money was needed for something? 

Yes, Dad, I borrowed it to get beer.

Money was taken from my wallet for beer, without mentioning it to me. 

Yes. I didn’t think you’d mind.

I don’t mind paying for beer.  I do mind money being taken from my wallet without asking me. It gives me no choice, it leaves me short without notice and makes me feel that my money is not safe here. I don’t like it at all.  If you need money for beer or anything, I expect to be ask first.  Could you do that?

Yes, ok, ok! I’m sorry.

And could I have the change please.

This sets a scene for a clear communication about what is and is not acceptable and to develop a way of going forward. To address the problem, firmly but without necessarily irretrievable escalation that would certainly come from accusations or inferences regarding theft.  It’s about careful thought in how to approach a sensitive issue.  Focus on what you do want.

I want these reports on my desk on time.  They have been late for the last three weeks and I can’t pay accounts on time without them.  This is affecting the relationships with some key clients who take it out on me and I am feeling pretty annoyed and unhappy about it.  When the reports are here on time a lot of pain is avoided.  What is happening that makes the reports late?

What do I want?

What are the observable, unloaded facts?

How is this situation affecting or impacting me? What do I feel about it?

Ask what is happening for them? What do they think?

Ask for what I do want.  Negotiate a solution.  Make a plan.

This communication empowers the players without setting them into camps against one another.

But this does take the courage and curiosity of a thoughtful person to put in place.  It takes willingness to take the risk – because it is uncertain what might happen.  But it is pretty certain that ignoring or not addressing a problem early in the piece, can be just as uncertain and a lot more damaging.

So be thoughtful about what is happening, find the right moment and the right language to pursue the solution you want.

There are no silver bullets.  Humans are too complicated for formulaic responses that fix everything.  Tone matters, context matters, history matters.  But make a considered start, as early as possible before it gets entrenched in nasty.

It’s your problem – be responsible for solving your problem.