How do you think about conflicts in your team? Are you sort of pleased when members oy your team are involved in a conflict where some spark a flying? Quite often managers and team leaders think that conflicts are dangerous for teams as they destroy team work and performance in the team. We think the opposite is true. Only those teams who can live through conflicts and use them constructively will be able to deliver excellent results. Such abilities are set in the early phases on the team development
The best know model of team development phases originates from Bruce Tuckmann. He separated the development of a team into 4 phases, Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. (We deliberately omit the lately added fifth phase of Mourning, the team ending phase, as it does not play a role in the context of the article)
All too often teams try to pass quickly or even skip the Storming phase. This is appears to happen more often in technical or Research and Development teams. The predominantly present preference for logical thinking does not help to see any benefit of the Storming phase which is in any way related to the team’s goal. Professional Individuals, so the assumption, should be able to separate between relationship issues and factual problems and therefore should be able to solves these independently.
Although conflicts are commonly classified into relationship and factual conflicts in practice they are not so easy to separate. However, even pure relationship conflicts are part of team work as a team can only function well if there is sufficient trust and open interaction amongst members. Dealing with conflicts is a part of this. Some of these relationship conflicts are injected into the team from external sources like organisation politics between functions. Those make it almost impossible for a team to work effectively. Such problems can be avoided to a large extent if teams take their time to pass through the Storming phase constructively.
Here an example out of our practice: A tam had been put together with short notice and under high time pressure. It was asked to resolve quality issues with a newly launched product. Preceding the team the leaders of relevant functions, like Quality, Research and Development and Supply Chain, were engaged in arguments on whom to blame for the product deficiencies. The team itself was not fully aware of the tensions between the functional heads even though each individual had very specific briefs form their boss on whom to blame for the problems.
The team dived into the work and tried all sorts of analysis to find the root cause of the problems. However, they were unable to come any where near a solution. Either data were not available or doubts were cast over them and hence over and over again new measurements were taken with coming to a conclusion. The tam oscillated between Storming and Performing with out realising hat they were sent into representative conflict.
Question is whether the team had any chance at all to get to Performing. We think it would have had a chance if went consciously through the Storming and Norming phase. This process does not take weeks or month. Most importantly the team should have addressed key aspects which are at the heart of excellent team work, such as developing openness and trust
Without a doubt developing trust is the first and fore most. Often this is only achievable with external support as well honed rituals of different function getting in the way. Those can be much easier challenged and broken with the help of an outsider. Subsequently the team may be much better equipped to talk openly about externally injected conflicts, even is they continue to exist in the ‘outside’ world. A facilitator might be essential in this phase, depending on the degree of organisational or (latent) interpersonal conflicts, to deal with such conflicts constructively.
Building on this the team has to engage in discussions on how to work with each other considering potential external organisational tensions. What values and norms will the interaction in the team be based upon. What are the critical forces impacting on the team? How will the team deal with these internally but also towards the external world? The time invested for this pays off very quickly.
Conflicts are often as clearly pre-programmed as in the above example. More often they develop in the course of the interaction, especially in times things are not going according to plan and the team is having a rough ride. One reason is the assumption of individual members that their own norms and values are commonly accepted. In rough times, however, different behaviours may surface which challenge the assumption and create increased tensions. This in itself would not be an issue if members would be prepared to openly discuss this. This brings us back to mutual trust and openness as essential ingredients for excellent teams.
Not every team has the luxury to start from scratch and to move through these 4 phases of team development consciously to reach a higher level of performance and handle conflicts more constructively straight from the start. How could a team handle a conflict which has been lingering around form quite some time?
Here an example of a project which almost failed due to team dynamics.
The team which was put together 4 month earlier was paralyzed. Individual members did no longer talk to each other. No work progress was made despite repeated appeals of the team leader. Expectations put into the highly qualified members of the team started to crumble.
What had happened?
After a short ‘getting to know each other’ first differences and dissonances surfaced which progressively developed into very serious conflicts. The division developed further and split the team in those who felt victims, those who saw themselves as the rescuer and those who were outcast as the culprits of it all.
The team leader, having the external expectations and the time pressure at the forefront of his mind, tried all the time to pull the conflicts on a factual level, without success. He ignored the interpersonal rivalry, individual’s personality and their emotions. As a consequence the board replaced the old team leader with a new one.
This became the turning point as the new leader focused first on the hot and later cold conflicts in the team before pushing forward with the content. In doing so he created a new openness which allowed the team to have more discussion for clarification than ever before. This enabled the team to discuss difference in what each thought the objectives were and the way forward should be. Living through constructive conflicts facilitated as well the rebuilding of relationships in the team.
Very quickly agreement has been established and the team was able to catch up on the time lost and delivered their project on time with good results.
Interestingly the two key players in the original conflict developed a very good relationship over the course of the project.
What should you consider as a leader?
The nature of the Storming phase is that output is very low. The team is inward looking and develops a ‘personality’ as well as a certain style of interaction and communication. Each attempt to brush arguments or conflict under the carpet will impact on the emerging team culture and its creative capabilities. Leaders should first and foremost take care that, whatever emotional level is involved, respect and appreciation for each other is maintained. In addition they should take care that individuals do not abuse factual conflicts for power games or rivalries. The core of the Storming phase is to clarify interdependencies and to develop a lasting team culture. This is the only way to avoid smouldering conflicts impacting in the work the team has to deliver. The higher the expectations placed in a team and the more challenging the objectives the more susceptible a team will be for interferences for within or outside. In other words the better the team’s ability to deal with conflict typically developed in the storming phase, the better its creativity and the higher it performance.
I have written this article together with Holger Schmidt who specializes in Conflict Coaching. To get in touch with Holger Schmidt about conflict-coaching send him an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, His website is: www.konflikt-coaching.biz