Description: Disagreements frequently turn into conflicts. Conflicts turn into personal attacks; are shut down destructively; or are addressed but not resolved. If resolved, they leave people feeling hurt. Creating a formal team structure will eliminate many of the root causes, as will agile work management. These techniques can address continuing problems.
- Agreements List
- Manager Recusal
- Mediation Procedure
- Personal Milestones
- Self-Image Review
- Proud and Sorry
- Formal Techniques
- Faction Conflicts
Frequently conflicts arise through misunderstandings—people may be saying the same thing and not even realize it. Also, conflicts often are not about what is to be achieved, but how to achieve it. So establishing the matters you can agree on can move the team much closer to resolving the issue. When you are discussing a matter that has created or is likely to create conflict, start by writing an Agreements List using the following steps, and continue to add to it throughout the discussion. Bear in mind that each of these items are “alive”: if you realize during the discussion that you do not agree on something after all, stop and see if you can change the item, and if not, delete it.
- Acknowledge the conflict—Say something like, “It looks like we have a bit of a conflict here,” or “Let’s acknowledge that we have some differences.”
- Define the problem—Write out the problem in a way everyone agrees on.
- List definitions—Make sure everyone is using terms the same way.
- List current agreements—Write down everything people already agree on, such as:
- Goals related to the issue.
- Undisputed facts.
- Criteria for the decision.
- Actions people agree must be taken.
- List the positions—Write down each side’s position in a way everyone agrees on. Note the way this is worded: you are not looking for everyone to agree with the positions. You want them to agree with the descriptions of those positions, to ensure everyone is understanding each other.
- If possible given your deadline for a decision:
- Defer further discussion of the issue to the next meeting.
- Set an action item to record the results from above as an “Agreements List” to be distributed to participants.
Note: Taking time to think about the level of agreement may trigger new ideas to resolve the conflict.
- Return to the issue discussion when ready, perhaps using one or more of the following techniques (or those under “Prioritizing” or “Decision-Making”).
When conflicts arise within the team, resist the temptation to “fix the problem” if you’re the manager. Learning how to work through conflicts constructively if they arise is part of the team’s growth. Encourage resolution of problems at the team or team-member levels, referring people to the other techniques on this page.
If someone comes to you about a conflict in the team or with team members:
- Ask if the individual has spoken to the person(s) involved:
- If not:
- Ask why not.
- Work out a script for the individual to do so comfortably.
- If so, and the team has a procedure for member conflicts:
- Ask if the person has used that procedure.
- If not, work out a script.
- If not:
- If after you complete Step 1 the problem persists, offer to mediate a solution:
- If the problem involves most of the team, schedule a meeting with you as the facilitator and choose one or more techniques from this page.
- If it involves two or more factions within the team, refer to the “Interteam Conflicts.”
- If it involves two or three individuals, use the “Mediation” procedure below.
Note: To be clear, you should make this offer only if:
- The team is not addressing the problem, or for individual conflicts, has not taken on mediation tasks yet, or
- As a sort of “appeals court” when the team’s procedure has not solved the problem.
Use this procedure for conflicts between two or three individuals. They can choose a mediator; the team may assign someone; or the manager may take this role. The steps are addressed to the mediator.
Note: If the conflict involves potential legal issues such as harassment, contact your Human Resources Department instead.
- Have the individuals in the conflict meet with you together.
- Remind each to focus on the person’s behaviors and not personal traits or bad motives.
- Tell them you will prevent:
- Emotionally charged language.
- Personal attacks.
- Hand each person a copy of the “Mediation Questions” below.
Perform the Mediation
- Have one person state their position without the other interrupting, telling the person to:
- Answer the questions on the handout, either in the general course of making their statement or by going down the list.
- Relate their position to team documents whenever possible.
Example: The person might say, “I feel that talking that way does not fit with our value about diversity in the Team Charter.”
- Repeat Step 1 with the other person.
- Allow the first speaker a short period to respond to the other’s statement, again without interruption.
- Repeat Step 3 with the other person.
- Allow open discussion.
- Ask each person to suggest a solution to the problem.
- Negotiate a compromise if necessary.
- Use relevant company or team mission statements, goals, rules, or other prior agreements as a basis for your decision-making.
Use this exercise to help members understand what causes the others to think the way they do:
- Hand out sticky notes, three per person.
- Say: “Each of you should write down on each sticky note one important milestone in your life. You do not have to reveal anything you do not want to, of course. But make it as personal as you feel comfortable sharing with the group. It can be things like a significant death, a personal achievement, a success or a failure, or anything else that happened to you that changed you in some way. Also add your name and the year of that event.”
- Continue with the meeting, and collect the notes near the end.
- Set an action item for someone to:
- Buy enough poster boards for the next step.
- Draw a timeline encompassing the range of dates on the notes, taping the boards together end to end.
- Tape the notes to the timeline at the appropriate dates.
Alternative: Type the notes into a timeline in a graphing program.
- At the next meeting, display or distribute the timeline.
- Allow everyone a few minutes to read the notes.
- Discuss any themes that appear.
Humans typically think most of a problem with another person is coming from that other person. Some people think the opposite, blaming themselves for those problems. Of course, most conflicts cannot be blamed solely on one person in the fight, and nobody causes all conflicts they are in. Untrue self-images can add to team conflicts because people fail to use their strengths or admit to their weaknesses. This exercise is a fairly painless way for each team member to test their self-image.
- Say: “Take a few minutes to write down what you think the other team members see as your top two weaknesses. Notice that I’m not asking what you think are your weaknesses; I want to hear what you think the others think are your weaknesses. Go ahead.”
- After enough time has passed, say: “Next we are going to hold a vote to see if the others agree with your list. Before we do that, I’d like to remind you all that if your teammates agree with someone else’s list but not yours, it does not mean they think you have more weaknesses than the other person. In fact, they might think the other person has more. It only means they do not agree with you on what your top weaknesses are.”
- Have someone read what they wrote down.
- Using a show of hands, have members vote on whether they agree or disagree with the person’s list.
- A strong majority agrees, ask the team: “What suggestions do you have for (person’s name) on how to address one of these weaknesses?”
- The vote is split: “I’d like for someone to share with (person’s name) a different weakness you would put on the list, or one you would remove from their list. There are some rules for the people who speak:
- “You must find a positive way to state the weakness.
- “You may not use the classic cheat of giving a compliment, then saying ‘but…’
- “Talk about behaviors only; no general statements about the person’s character or motives, please.”
- Work with the team until there is strong agreement on two weaknesses for the individual, then return to the first bullet in Step 5.
- Continue until each person has a list backed by a strong majority and suggestions for addressing a weakness.
- At the next meeting, repeat the exercise to create lists of strengths, changing the first question under Step 5 to: “How does this strength help the team?”
Proud and Sorry
Try this simple version of a “Lessons Learned” exercise to address old issues that might be contributing to current conflicts:
- During a team meeting, hand out several large sticky notes to each person.
- Say: “Looking back over the past year (or a lesser period if the team is new) write your answers to the following two questions:
- “What behavior are you proud of?
- “What behavior are you sorry about?”
Note: Also say:
- “It is okay to be proud of something someone else did, or that the team did as a whole.
- “You cannot write that you are sorry about something the team or someone else did.”
- Label two areas of the board “Proud” and “Sorry.”
- After sufficient time say: “Okay, come put your notes in the appropriate areas.”
- Split the team into two groups and assign one category to each.
- “Please get together in your groups and separate the notes into clusters of similar notes. Then come up with a one-sentence description of each cluster. You have 15 minutes.”
- When done, have representatives from the groups read their cluster descriptions.
- Create a “Lessons-Learned” list with at least one item per description by asking: “What lessons can we learn from these statements?”
- Modify the Team Charter, Mission Plan, or project plan to address the lessons.
Conflicts are more likely to arise in a free discussion than in a formal problem-solving or decision-making exercise. If that is the case in your team, set a team rule for the facilitator to stop the discussion as soon as emotions rise and use a technique from the relevant sections under “Teamwork Troubleshooting.”
Sometimes team conflicts will occur between smaller, consistent groupings of team members, with those factions frequently at odds. See “Interteam Conflicts” for methods of resolving these cases.
Full citations for the footnotes are here.
 Based on Shonk 1982.