“It’s like we’ve done absolutely nothing these last five years. Everything we’re doing is wrong.” My friend was really upset. His company had just brought on board a new VP of Business Development and looked like the man was not exactly winning minds and hearts.
“Worse yet, he has the right answer for everything. I’m just sick of the guy – I don’t think I can work with him!” It took a while for my friend to calm down and when he did, I realized that he actually agreed with many of the new VP’s observations.
In fact he’d been saying some of the very same things, albeit a whole lot more diplomatically and in smaller groups. Why then, was my friend not happy that he had an ally, a senior one at that, to set right the things that he himself thought needed to be fixed?
Team conflicts usually originate when something is said or done. And often, it’s not about what is said, but how it is said. Depending on the level of trust or lack thereof, this gives rise to questions about why it is being said – in other words, motive or intent.
The secret to resolving team conflict is to both understand the what, how and why.
Content (the what) As most of our work is done with others, as team mates or in meetings, the ability to communicate clearly with one another is important. What is communicated need not always be agreeable or even acceptable at times. Some of us (or many times our bosses or god forbid, our spouses) go out of our way to avoid disagreements. That’s not a good thing, as healthy disagreements and alternate points of view result in better decision making. So if you don’t like what some one is saying, first examine whether you are disagreeing with the content of their statements. If you are, then a discussion (dare I say argument) or reflection can ensue. If however, as with my friend above, you don’t disagree with what’s being said then it’s time to look at style.
Style (the how) We’ve all encountered folks who appear to have no filter between their brain and their mouths. So they blurt out things, at times hurtful, make sweeping generalizations and often label – “I can’t believe how lazy he is – why do you let him get away with it?” A lucky few, may be unaware they do this and may require only pointing out to change their communication styles. Other’s may range from a defensive “You know me, I’m blunt!” to combative “That’s they way I’m” all the way to outright denial, “I don’t do that!” What all these folks don’t realize is that the message is lost, because of the their delivery style. It is critical to address this. People who won’t modify their communication style will not be effective and may be perceived to have an ulterior motive.
Intent (they why) All of us find it hard to hear less-than-pleasant things, especially about ourselves. This could range from the simply social “You have bad breath” to a more career limiting “You never let the other person complete their thought!” When such feedback comes from someone you trust and whose motivations or intent you don’t question, then you are willing to hear what’s said, even if unpleasant. On the other hand, when the person is either new to us or we encounter a style that’s jarring and not amenable to change, then we question their intent. Why are they doing this – are they being political? Are they actually saying or meaning something else? At this point effective communication has ceased and you have yourself a team conflict.
Successful leaders and teams learn to separate Intent, Style & Content. Once intent is clear and non-negotiable, style issues can be addressed. Then real progress in terms of discussing contentious issues with the necessary focus on content (or what’s being said) can be made.
Addressing style issues will enhancing your team’s effectiveness and not doing so will cause much mayhem as intent is questioned leading to further conflicts.
[About the author : K Srikrishna is Executive Director at National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) and blogs at DesignofBusiness.com. He earlier co-founded Impulsesoft (sold to SiRF Technologies) and Zebu Communications. He’s an angel investor and on the advisory board of three startups.]