One of the main challenges for any leader or manager is getting members of your team to work well together.
As a manager, you may spend a fair bit of time trying to make sure everyone gets along and steering people clear of fights and confrontation, with the aim that your team be as effective as possible.
However, conflict is hard to avoid because workplaces create conflict by their very nature. Decisions have to be taken that may not have 100% agreement, projects don’t always run smoothly, people get promoted or passed over. There are always trade-offs to be made and people’s feelings are affected by all sorts of things. Not to mention that when groups of people work together, they will sometimes interrupt each other, complain, and be spiky. Human beings can easily rub each other up the wrong way!
Psychologist and business strategist Liane Davey says, “The question is whether conflict can be discussed in a healthy way that you can get through, or whether it goes underground and festers like a root fire that smoulders for months or even years.”
Lifting the lid on conflict
Whilst you may be afraid that if you lift the lid on Pandora’s box, people will get hurt and collaboration will be impossible, actually fights are more valuable to your team than you think. (We’re not talking about punchups here.) And strange as it may seem, heated arguments can indicate that a team is making progress.
“All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow.”
Recently we’ve been working with a couple of newly formed teams from different institutions. They do different kinds of work at different levels of seniority. One has been set up from scratch to support a new strategy. The other is from an established unit, but was recently restructured and has a new team lead and newly promoted deputies.
These teams are doing very different work but they both have something in common. They are both going through the same stages of evolution on their way to being high performing teams – which is one that’s really good at making decisions, getting things done and, crucially, making space to reflect.
To be a high performing team can take a while and takes work.
Stages of team development
In the early stages of a team, when everyone is being a bit coy and polite, when people hold back from saying what they really think and feel as they size each other up, people behave with caution and civility.
The group development models made famous by researchers such as Tuckman, Agazarian and Wheelan describe this as the forming or flight stage.
The models show – and we see this playing out – even after a few weeks or months when groups have got to know each other better, they often still shy away from conflict or direct disagreement.
But then the cracks start to appear. Undisclosed frustrations about progress with projects, perceived slights or even seemingly innocuous things like the way meetings are always task focussed, start to bubble up and break out in fights and other ways that people find alarming.
Whilst some team members get stuck in, others decide to ‘withdraw’. Perhaps no one shows any interest in their area, or they are regularly interrupted or sidelined. They might complain that no one listens to them, but probably not to the people involved.
These behaviours indicate the team has moved on from forming to the storming or fight stage.
Precursors to better collaboration
Both of these stages of a team – forming and storming – are really normal. And are actually precursors to better collaboration and higher performance, because before those can happen, the team needs to resolve how to best work with one another more effectively. Once resolved people know where they stand, and what the boundaries are. There is trust, respect and confidence that they can deal with the tricky stuff that comes up.
Getting to this, it turns out, is really hard.
Before then conflict can come about through things we think of as ‘below the waterline’. Your anger for example, might be triggered by something seemingly banal – say a comment about you using the photocopier too much. How do you bring that up in a professional context without sounding like an idiot? Yet your anger is real, the emotional flooding just as debilitating and distracting, as if something far more serious was happening. And not dealing with it or the myriad of equivalents has consequences.
Perhaps this is something you are experiencing, or you have in the past?
The problem is that most of us feel ill-equipped to deal with the fight or conflict. So we shy away from it. Paper over it. Yet time and again research has shown that groups do better when they can move through these phases of development, otherwise they get stuck there.
Being in a team stuck between forming and storming is exhausting and demoralising. Work still gets done, but probably no one is having a good time. And what’s achieved is only ever a fraction of the potential. Being stuck in that place drives people to leave, or to burnout.
In our work with newly formed groups, we reassure them that it’s inevitable for people working together to experience these flight/fight situations.
Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing which stage you are in can help you think about your ability to change things, and your own responses.
That’s usually where we focus our work.
A tool for working with conflict
To help teams with this, we’ve been using a tool called Shield, a process that helps you firstly identify what triggers you, and then work through your feelings and responses so that you can reach a new way of being together.
Working with the tool builds trust because it requires a little bit of vulnerability and risk taking. You have to admit that you get triggered. You are encouraged to work together to understand what’s really driving your response.
By using this tool (and others like it) to have more open conversations about what is going on, groups can get through the flight and fight stages more easily and with less psychological damage. The tool doesn’t fix things, but it is a way of practising a different way of communicating. And practice makes better.
For example, say you’re in a meeting and someone says or does something – it triggers you and suddenly you feel really uncomfortable. Maybe nobody listened to a word you said, or others were arguing and it all got really tense. Worse, this happens every time you have a meeting.
Working with Shield
Shield is a neat way to help you explore your responses so they don’t control you, and you don’t get stuck there. It has seven steps that you work though on your own and then with a peer, before swapping notes in your group:
- The trigger
Get clear on what it is that sets you off.
What thoughts come up when you’re triggered? There’s normally a cascade of them, a mix of self-doubt and frustration such as: “I hate this,” or “They think I’m useless”.
Can you identify the associated feelings? Often it’s anger, perhaps tinged with sadness and fear.
When you feel like that, do you become snippy or passive aggressive? Do you withdraw completely and shut down? Do you pretend everything is okay?
There are consequences to being snippy or ‘checking out’: others may react by being snippy back, or if you withdraw then neither you nor the group can explore your perspective. Either way it becomes a dissatisfying experience.
If your behaviour has consequences, you can work to stop them happening by first understanding your need. An example might be your need to “feel valued and respected by my colleagues and when people don’t listen to me, I don’t feel either of those things, which is why I get so triggered.”
What would help you in these scenarios? You could take a deep breath and choose to manage your response. What might help even more is if other people notice you’re not speaking or are being snippy, and they say, “Steve, you’re being quiet (or aggressive). Are you alright?” Then you can have an honest conversation about what is happening.
Partly the Shield exercise is about getting to know each other’s triggers and default responses, and partly it’s about recognising that those default responses are typical of ‘fight’ stage behaviours.
Without this awareness, if in a moment of conflict you respond in your default dysfunctional ways – ie you get aggressive, interrupt people, withdraw or complain – none of those will move the group on to collaborate better. In fact those responses probably trigger others around you in dysfunctional ways too.
However if you can recognise that you’re triggering each other into negative feedback loops, then you can do something about it. Knowing you are at the fight stage helps you get through it.
In a team, it’s all about how you interact with each other. The way people are with you plays a huge part in defining how you feel about yourself and your work. That means even if your team is not high performing, you can still interact in ways that are constructive and useful.
The question is how do you develop a shared language for talking about the things that frustrate you. Because if you can do that, you can get to real collaboration faster.
If you are experiencing these kinds of issues in your team and you’d like more information on Shield, or help with using it, please get in touch.
At Then Somehow we help universities and other organisations build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.
If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation develop leaders and perform better, get in touch here.