A while ago I watched the Top Gear rerun in which Richard Hammond drove a 1963 Opel Kadett called ‘Oliver’ across the wildest terrain in Botswana. The team crossed the Makgadikgadi pan; a thin crust of clay over mush where to stop is to lose your vehicle. They took on rough dirt roads and soft sand.
The team crossing the Makgadikgadi pans.
The team dealt with breakdowns as they occurred. Oliver cruised through all the tests except for a river crossing which Hammond took on with great confidence but which proved too deep, causing Oliver to float and then sink, frazzling all the electrics.
Here is RH posing next to Oliver. There are BIG crocodiles round there but anyway! The show MUST go on.
Rather than give up, Hammond worked through the night with a local mechanic to rewire the car. He drove up to the start the next day (at least that’s how they made it look) with Oliver looking good.
Driving in this terrain in an old car seemed to be a good metaphor for conversations in teams. You know breakdowns are going to happen. Can you deal with them when they do? What is your immediate response when they happen? Do you prepare for breakdown; do you have the necessary tools? Do you view breakdowns positively, as an opportunity to improve your understanding and skill? Do you seek them out when they don’t happen naturally? What is your attitude towards failure?
Some principles for conflict
Disagreement is essential for teams. How else can ideas and approaches be challenged? But conflict can be disorientating. Some teams are not ready for it when it happens and some members don’t have the skills to disagree effectively. When disagreement becomes heated and emotional, many teams lose their way completely. There is much written about disagreement and conflict. And there are contradictory definitions and distinctions. To decide on a general approach I have tried to stand back and formulate some general principles.
- Where two or more are gathered there will be differences of perspective. These differences constitute one of the essential benefits of being in a team, as long as the members know how to listen and to raise their points of view.
- Facts don’t drive action. Emotions drive action. When actions or intentions clash, emotions, pain and rejection escalate and conflict can emerge.
- Innovative, passionate, headstrong people will precipitate clashes in discussions.
- Deep trust in teams allows people to listen and engage with each other on a broader and deeper range of disagreement.
- The most successful teams seek out areas of conflict. When teams have experienced the clarity, resolution and emotional release of successfully engaging in and resolving conflict they can learn to engage in these high energy discussions more readily. Conflict, based in trust allows the best ideas to emerge and the team to commit themselves to the outcomes.
- Sometimes even the most effective teams become stuck in conflict.
Approaches to managing conflict
Here are some approaches for each of these principles:
- Disagreement happens. When it happens, accept it. Work your way through it. Agree rules for openness and candour. “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” (Covey). Then define the disagreement more clearly.
- When emotions are heightened it is a good idea to slow the conversation down. First acknowledge that you have conflict. Then take time to clearly define the conflict in terms of who is involved, the facts, the emotions, consequences, actions to date and impact of the events.
- If you know there will be differences of opinion when your team meets, agree, up-front, on how you will deal with this as a team. If the chances are slight you can agree to stop and contract should it be necessary. If conflict is likely, you can agree the rules, right up front, on how the team should behave for an effective conversation.
- Trust is built in teams when members to present themselves to the rest of the team as real, vulnerable people. (not villains or superheroes).
- Even when a team has experienced effective conflict they may shy away from engaging in the same level again. The leader or facilitator of a team experienced in conflict can encourage the team to raise and engage in difficult issues, to delve deep and revel in the learning and growth.
- If you are stuck in your conflict, pause and reflect on what has got you stuck. This may be due to many different factors such as physical constraints, unresolved history, emotional deficiency or tiredness.