How to manage interpersonal conflict in your team
Diverse personalities, backgrounds, and beliefs can create a certain amount of conflict within a team — and interestingly, that can drive creativity. According to research cited by Darko Lovric and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in their article “Too Much Team Harmony Can Kill Creativity” for Harvard Business Review, diversity is positively associated with creative performance, and productive task conflict allows teams to be more innovative.
However, when conflict makes people feel uncomfortable and escalates into actual disputes, it becomes harmful to the team. And that’s when it’s time for you to step in as a mediator to help resolve the conflict. The following four steps can help:
- Set the stage. In order to resolve the conflict, all parties must be willing to participate in the process. Find a neutral place for everyone to meet, such as your office or a conference room. Then set out the ground rules: Each party must be willing to express his or her point of view, as well as listen respectfully to others without interrupting. Emphasize that it’s not about pointing a finger or finding a scapegoat — it’s about working together professionally to find a way past the conflict.
- Clarify the situation. Allow each party to express his or her point of view. Then summarize the situation — but make sure to withhold judgement. For example, if Tom and Anne are arguing about which specific course of action to take in a project, listen to each of them, and succinctly recap their points of view.
- Encourage discussion. It’s during this step that grievances or personality clashes are often expressed — and it’s wise to objectively question whether those are relevant to the current situation. So if Anne thinks Tom’s idea won’t work because he made a mistake on a previous project, it’s wise to determine exactly how that relates to the issue at hand — if at all. Or if Tom feels that Anne is trying to encroach on his specific area of expertise, ask what basis he has for that belief. By airing out grievances and clarifying why a party does, says, or believes something, you can help your team members create more understanding for and appreciation of each other.
- Find a solution. The best possible resolution to any conflict is a win-win situation. While that’s not always possible, you can certainly find the best way forward based on facts. For example, if Tom has learned from his mistake and that new knowledge has helped him craft an effective course of action, Anne needs to let her grievance go and work with him to objectively assess the pros and cons of both their suggestions. But if Anne has a valid concern, then that needs to be taken into account during the decision making process.
As Rick Gibbs advises in his Forbes article “How to Successfully Manage Workplace Conflict,” in times of conflict, it’s essential to act quickly in order to prevent the spread of negative energy. By stepping in at the first sign that a mere disagreement is becoming something more serious, you can take action to get your team focused on your collective goals in a respectful, constructive manner.
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