by Eben Weitzman
Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance
More than ever, people today work in teams. The benefits of teams seem obvious: a greater diversity of knowledge and skill; more hands to help with the lift; more perspectives; and the synergy of people working together. And yet, unresolved conflicts in teams are common, and often at the heart of baffling, frustrating organizational problems.
Sometimes these conflicts are overt, and sometimes they simmer just below the surface. Either way, unresolved conflict at work depletes the group’s energy, lowering its performance and making the experience miserable.
But this does not have to be the case. So what can you do to prepare a new group to work well together or help a group in disarray pivot and get back on track? Here are five questions you can ask to help get everyone rowing in the right direction.
- What do the group dynamics tell you about what the group needs?
Although “group dynamics” often appear baffling, they are a treasure chest of information. For example, you can pay attention to patterns of communication. Who talks to whom? Who interrupts? Who always agrees or disagrees? Who shuts down and when? These patterns give you clues about the insecurities, feelings of competitiveness, slights and hurt feelings that can drive conflict at work. Similarly, you can look at patterns of influence, decision making, or support.
As you look at all these patterns, keep at the front of your mind the question:
- What do these folks need, individually or as a group, so that they can fully engage in the work?
- What’s getting in the way?
- Are the individuals’ goals aligned to the group’s goals?
As long as individual needs or incentives are not aligned with group goals, it is difficult for the team to pull in the same direction. To make matters worse, individuals’ incentives are not always clear. So, you need to talk about it.
Be explicit about adopting strategies for aligning group members. Talk through group goals, give people a chance to weigh in, and if possible let the group craft those goals. People will feel a great deal more ownership and commitment to goals they’ve had a hand in setting. If the goals are a given and there is no room for rethinking them, give the group a chance to think through the importance of the goals, and brainstorm creatively about how to get there.
For each member of the group, ask yourself:
- Why should they give their all to this effort?
- What needs are met by being in this group?
- What gets each member of your group excited?
Once you identify each individual’s needs, think about how to get them excited. Again, observe the group dynamics. When do they seem excited? When do they feel squashed? Ask open-ended questions about their experience in the group. Groups perform best when their leaders unleash the potential of each member.
- What is each person’s best potential and how do you tap into it?
- What do they need to feel recognized and respected?
Everyone—yes everyone—values recognition and respect. Actively look for opportunities to recognize a job well done. Publicly call out individuals who have given above and beyond. Acknowledge when the group may be feeling discouraged. Ups and downs are all part of life in a group.
- What does each person need in order to be seen and feel respected?
- How can we approach conflict at work with curiosity and openness?
Finally, you need a group culture where conflict is approached with comfort, openness, and a constructive spirit. Set the tone by responding with openness, curiosity and excitement when people disagree or when contradictory interests surface. Ask open-ended questions, explore reasons and underlying interests, brainstorm win-win solutions, and be courageous about changing your own mind.
Here, ask yourself:
- How can you help the group talk about difficult issues in a productive way?
As a group leader or member, you can help your colleagues do their best work. It’s not always easy, but by observing the group dynamics and linking individual needs to the group’s needs you just may be the change the group needs.
Eben Weitzman (PhD, Columbia University) directs the Graduate Programs in Conflict Resolution at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School. He specializes in organizational conflict, cultural differences in attitudes toward conflict, and the effects of cooperation and competition on small group processes.