How to Restore a Team Suffering from Chronic Conflict to a Productive Team
By Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A.
Misery is working on a team where conflict is a constant. Meetings often end in disagreement or worse, awkward silence. Trust and morale are low. Gossip and badmouthing create tension and people feel like they’re walking on eggshells. Some employees won’t even talk to each other except to get tasks done. People may have formed cliques that feed the feud and keep the group polarized.
Employees working in a group like this are unhappy. The best ones will likely leave sooner than later to find another job.
Depending on how long conflict has held the team hostage, the original inciting incident may be forgotten. In fact, some of the people who were there at the start may have left by now. New ones joined the group but the work culture remains as toxic as ever. This is because group norms are powerful. Often, someone in the group is benefitting from keeping the team off kilter. Current employees will have taught new ones how to act. Those that wouldn’t comply got ostracized, adding yet another layer of conflict.
The problem is usually evident to people outside of the immediate unit who have to interface with the team. They will either conduct “work-arounds” to avoid having to deal with the negativity or complain about how hard it is to work with this team. This puts a burden on the larger organization and costs thousands of dollars in inefficiencies, low productivity and poor quality work results.
“People don’t perform because of their salary. hey perform because of their motivation. When you have conflict or dissension within the company, people do not produce at their highest level.” — Dr. Jeff Zimmerman of Avon’s Beacon Behavioral Services LLC.
It doesn’t have to stay this way.
No matter how long this situation has existed, it’s not too late to turn it around. In fact, if you’re a manager, you can’t afford to let this situation continue one day longer.
If you’re like many of the managers I’ve helped with team dynamics over the years, you probably feel scared and intimated by the very idea of needing to intervene in a chronic conflict. If you’ve been the manager in that group for a while, you may feel hopeless, frustrated and at the end of your patience. You’ve tried a variety of ways to change the dynamics but they persist. As a new manager who inherited this team, you probably feel overwhelmed. You don’t know the history or the origin of the conflicts or where the landmines are buried.
There is a proven process that can break the conflict cycle without having to revisit the past and re-open old wounds. In a reasonable period of time, you can improve the work climate and do it in a way that your employees will support.
The following steps are used by professional team building facilitators. If you feel that it would be helpful to have a neutral, third party help you start this process, by all means bring one in. However, I’ve also seen managers with good communication skills apply these steps themselves and obtain positive results.
1. Ask for ideas and commitment to change the work climate
This step is best begun with individual conversations. It’s a good idea to write a script for yourself to help boost your confidence and stay on track. I also recommend having your first conversations with the most promising and positive employees. This will give you insights to further tweak and tailor subsequent conversations. Use neutral and non-judgmental language but be honest. Don’t use euphemisms when you talk about the situation.
The conversation has two parts:
- Statement of the problem (general, one sentence) and of the goal to make things better. For example, “We both know there is a lot of tension in this group. I believe we can make this a good place to work again but I need your help.”
- Open-ended questions seeking input. Say, “I’d like to get your thoughts and ideas on what we can do going forward.” Ask questions such as these:
i. What kind of work climate do you want? (If you get a response about how it wouldn’t be possible here, just say, “That might be but for the moment let’s pretend it is. Describe what a typical day would look like and feel like if things were different.)
ii. What specifically gets in the way of us having the kind of climate you describe? (Allow, even invite, an honest discussion about the conflicts in the group. Also ask about how organizational systems and procedures might contribute.)
iii. If it were possible to achieve your vision, what do you think it would take to create it? (Accept all ideas, even if one of them is about moving someone out of the group. Just don’t let it be the only suggestion. Draw out as many ideas as possible.)
iv. What advice do you have for me as your manager—what could I do better or differently—to increase the likelihood of success?
v. What could you do differently to increase the likelihood of success?
vi. Are you willing to do your part to help make things better?
vii. Close by explaining that you will be speaking to everyone and will share a summary of what you learned at an upcoming team meeting.
2. Facilitate a team meeting that calls for change
Sometimes it is helpful to hold this meeting off-site to get away from work distractions and send the message about its importance. Allow at least 3-4 hours. The goal of the meeting is to share the summary of the conversations you held and obtain a group commitment to change the work climate. The agenda for this meeting is two-fold:
a) A high-level summary (bullet points are fine) about what people said (no names) they wanted to be different and their ideas for how to start moving in that direction.
b) Ask for additions. Some people will want to rehash or raise more problems about why this won’t work. Refocus the group, as often as necessary, on what they want and how to start down the road to getting there.
c) A public confirmation committing to the changes. You want to get verbal statements from each individual. If you can’t get everyone, go for a majority.
3. Cement the commitment to change with a symbolic ceremony
This can occur at the same team meeting as above or at the next one, depending on time. It is important to create a ceremony that uses as many senses as possible to make it memorable. It can be hokey, serious, funny, somber or irreverent. It just needs to fit the group. You might even ask one or two (the most committed) employees to help design it.
The message of the ceremony is letting the old go and moving forward with the new from here on forward.
4. Develop and work an action plan
Prioritize ideas for early implementation. Identify who will do what by when (including you) and follow up. As the manager, you are responsible for removing roadblocks to success and providing resources as needed. For example, you may wish to provide training on personality style differences, effective communication or conflict management. You may need to make structural changes—how the work space is organized, new roles assignments, or procedural improvements.
Chances are most people are weary of the poor work climate and will welcome a change. Expect them to be scared and mistrustful at first. One or two, the ones who got power from maintaining the status quo, may resist the most and be slow to do their part. Consistently let them know that the old ways and behaviors will not be tolerated. Protect the process you’ve started and those who are doing their best to make things better.
Remember, you can always bring in a professional to help with any part of the process. You don’t have to do it alone. But you do have to act.
Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. is the founder of Conflict Tango whose mission is to help people reduce stress and increase confidence in conflict situations. She is the author of Conflict to Creativity A to Z. Jagoda is passionate about combining creativity and conflict management skills to empower innovative solutions.