Conflict can lead to paralysis. It’s one of the most obstructive issues in the workplace that’s often be perceived as the most difficult to overcome.
I was recently invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact.
The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between two team members, with each of the two attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. Wasn’t it the two protagonists who needed to change?
Inaction perpetuates the problem
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting.
‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the two.
‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing.
‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’
I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the two was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group.
From passive to active
I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead.
For example: ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’
‘When you two fight, I find myself withdrawing.’
‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’
‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
This exercise was transformational. They realised they could be changemakers; they could take control and influence outcomes. It was a pivotal moment in the coaching process.
Awareness and honesty stimulate change
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced:
‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’
‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’
The transformational leadership-team process was really taking shape, change was happening and personal responsibility was starting to emerge.
Action learning and conflict resolution
There are parallels here with Action Learning. A person may present an issue that focuses on an important relationship, perhaps where there is unresolved conflict. It’s clouding their vision and they are unable to see a way forward.
It may be the first time they’ve had opportunity to talk about the relationship in a safe space where peers do not criticise or collude, but listen and offer questions to help the person find their own solutions.
It could be questions that enable them to test their own assumptions; to see themselves, their relationship and their wider cultural context in a new light. This facility empowers them to move away from simply waiting for the other person to change; the power of influence actually lies with them.
This is where Action Learning can be such a potent process. Unlike ordinary group discussions, it involves a set engaging in clear ‘contracting’ (that is, reaching explicit agreement) from the outset:
For example: ‘this is what we are here to do’;
‘this is how we will do it’
‘these are the roles we will play’
this is how we will ensure confidentiality etc.
The scene is set for open, honest discussion. The process also involves learning and practising high-quality questions together that can generate insight, unlock ‘stuck-ness’ and enable a person to find or create their own innovative solutions. The results can be profound, enabling all set members to grow and change.
What methods have you used that have been successful in dissipating conflict in the workplace? I’d be interested to hear.
Nick Wright is a psychological coach and organisation development (OD) consultant and an Associate at Action Learning Associates.