If there is one thing that regularly cripples effective teams, it’s conflict.
We’ve all seen this.
There’s an incredibly talented football team that is a preseason pick to win it all but the team underperforms when it matters because the players can’t get along.
There’s a seasoned and skilled executive team that go nuclear because of relational strife.
There’s a growing church that loses momentum because the executive pastor and the teaching pastor can’t seem to get on the same page.
We’ll all seen it and we’ve all been a part of it. The thing is, we can’t avoid conflict. We live and lead in a fallen world. The question is not, how do we avoid conflict, but rather, how do we navigate conflict in our leadership teams?
The question is not, how do we avoid conflict, but rather, how do we navigate conflict in our leadership teams?Tweet
I have three strategies that have worked well on my team.
1. Prepare for Conflict with Relationships
Here’s an obvious but important truth: I handle conflict differently with people I love and people I, well… don’t love.
You know what I mean because you do the same thing. With people we love, we tend to be more patient, more understanding, more empathetic and more honest. With people we don’t like or don’t know, we tend to assume the worst.
Because of this, the most important strategy for navigating conflict is to build strong relationships in your team. If your team cares about each other, they will be more honest, more trusting and more understanding. If your team doesn’t care about each other. Well, you are in trouble.
How do you build relationships? I have two ideas:
1. Relational Meetings
Start every team meeting with a relational component. It’s important that your team share about their personal lives and their stories. This will build trust and understanding. Do it regularly and often. Relationships take time.
2. Team Retreats
Start incorporating team retreats into your schedule. Why is this important? First, because we all act more like our authentic selves when our guard is down. Getting away from the regular schedule and responsibilities, finding a different space (like someone’s house or cottage), sharing a meal and hanging out in a disarming environment can do wonders for a team.
On our last retreat, we did little, other than eat together and answer three relational questions:
- What was the most important moment of your childhood?
- What was the most important moment of your teenage years?
- What has been the most important moment of your adult life?
It’s hard to explain the value of your team laughing and crying together. It builds a powerful sense of togetherness.
Secondly, shared experiences is a powerfully binding. Your team needs a few, “Remember when we…?” Shared memories, especially if they are funny or emotional, have the power to bind a team together.
Team retreats can become shared experiences. Go ahead and schedule one. You won’t regret it. If you don’t know what to do, go ahead and use my three questions.
Relationships pave the way for healthy conflict resolution. If I know your story, your passions and your quirks, I am much more likely to respond to you with maturity and grace when we disagree.
2. Manage Conflict though a Culture of Candor
My second strategy for navigating conflict is creating a culture of candor.
What is candor? It’s raw honesty.
If you have a culture of candor, team members will speak openly and honestly in staff meetings. If you don’t have a culture of candor, team members will stay quiet in team meetings and then verbalize their dissent at the water cooler.
Obviously, we would all prefer a culture of candor but very few teams have it. Why? Because it’s hard work and it’s is uncomfortable in the early stages.
What is needed is trust. Trust is the foundation of candor.
Without trust, I will not be honest because being honest is dangerous. All too often in business and church leadership, honesty is penalized. This has to stop.
Here’s the truth about conflict. We need and want conflict. We just need to keep it in the right place. A team meeting that is full of healthy conflict is a good thing because that means that team members are honestly dialoguing over ideas. Conflict in the right place keeps us from making bad decisions and helps team members galvanize around good ideas.
Good leaders draw out and manage conflict in the right places in order to unify the team. How do you do this?
- First, reread my 1st strategy and schedule that staff retreat. You can’t have a culture of candor without trust.
- Second, communicate your desire for a culture of candor. Win your team over to your strategy.
- Third, learn to draw out conflict in your meetings. Read the faces and body language of your team. Be okay saying things like “Bill, it doesn’t seem like you think this is a good idea. Let us in on what’s going on in your mind. We need your opinion on this!”
- Fourth, fight for a “team first” approach. Require honest opinions in the private team meetings and require a unified front in public settings.
3. Resolve Conflict through Swift and Direct Conversation
My third and last strategy for navigating conflict is for those times when a conflict arises that can’t be resolved with candor or is some sort of personal issue between two team members.
The solution here is incredibly simple and equally as uncomfortable: Direct conversation.
If Bill and Sarah are in conflict, set up a meeting with you, Bill and Sarah and only you, Bill and Sarah.
Don’t include Jane.
Don’t allow Bill to triangulate with Sam.
How exactly do you actually pull off a direct conversation like this?
First off, don’t delay on this. When you get wind of a brewing unresolved conflict take action.
Start by meeting with each team member individually and listening to their side of the story. If the conflict is obviously the fault of one team member, attempt to reason with that person individually to avoid embarrassing the person. If that team member is willing to apologize privately and make things right, everyone wins.
Secondly, if the conflict is more complex then call for a private meeting with the two team members right away. Any time I lead a conversation like this, my boss’s first question after the meeting is, “How long was the meeting? If it was longer than 10 minutes, I failed. Don’t let it get emotional. Don’t let one of the team members monologue forever. This only leads to trouble.
So, within a 10-minute window, here’s my template for this conflict:
- “Bill, give us your perspective on this conflict.”
- Bill gives his perspective.
- “Bill, let me try to summarize and then let me know if I’ve understood.”
- “Sarah, give us your perspective on this conflict.”
- Sarah gives her perspective
- “Sarah, let me try to summarize and then let me know if I’ve understood.”
- “Here’s what I see. Here’s where we go from here.”
9 times out of 10, just listening to each other clarifies the actual issue and unifies the team members (if there is a previous relationship). They will both apologize for their part and commit to moving forward with a better approach.
1 time out of 10, you will have to help Bill understand why he is in the wrong and ask him to apologize and change his behavior. The ball will be in his court on whether he will handle this with maturity or not.
So there you go. I can’t make any promises but I can say that these three strategies have helped my team navigate conflict pretty well. I’d love to hear your reactions to this as well as anything you’ve learned on navigating conflict.