I was working with a really great leadership team last week.  The team is full of smart, friendly, collaborative individuals who each have the best interest of the business in mind.  The opportunity for this team, and maybe for your team, is not to be lulled into a false sense of security by a harmonious team dynamic.  Instead, the way to keep conflict to a minimum is to prepare for it. In this case, the team knows that next year’s budget will not have sufficient resources for all that they want to do but they don’t yet know how much of a shortfall there will be.  (Sound familiar?)

One approach is to wait until the final numbers come in and then start the discussions about how best to spend what money is available.  The problem with the wait-and-see approach is that once the budgets are known and the wheels are in motion, the amount of stress and pressure on the team will make it really difficult to have productive debate about how best to spend money. (It’s hard to be logical about decision making criteria when your critical transformation project is on the chopping block!) That’s a sure path to really difficult conflict.

The alternative to waiting and hoping that conflict won’t happen is to spend some time preparing for how you will work through conflict when it comes.

Let me pause for a moment to reinforce that I am using the word “conflict” to describe a situation where different members of your team have competing interests that will need to be resolved.  I don’t view conflict as a negative or problematic situation, just a fact.

Preparing for Conflict

  1. Decide what you will need to decide. In this example, the team might need to decide on one key priority for each department.  Alternatively, they might decide that they will not spread resources equally and instead will have to decide what the best three projects are for the organization as a whole—even if that means one department gets nothing. There is a significant difference between the two and it’s best to be clear up front.
  2. Decide how you will decide: set the criteria. Once you know what decisions you will need to make, you can determine the criteria that you will use. You might decide that the most important criterion is contribution to profitability in the next fiscal year.  That would be very different from a criterion based on Return on Investment over 3 years. Alternatively, you might include criteria such as impact on the customer, cost reduction, or capital requirements.
  3. Decide how you will decide: decision rights. Is this a democratic decision making process where everyone on the team votes? Or, is this a situation where the team leader will invest time in reaching consensus but step in to make the decision if there isn’t a timely resolution? For the team I was working with last week, it’s clear that the team leader would prefer everyone to come to an aligned decision—and just as clear that he will make the decision if they cannot.
  4. Decide when you will decide. Some contentious decisions take way too long.  Once you’re in the heat of the battle, it’s hard to cut off the discussion and come to a resolution.  That’s why the timing for your decision is another great thing to add to your conflict preparations. Decide how long you will spend collecting good information, how long you will debate the best course of action, and when you will make a decision even if you’re only 80% confident.
  5. Decide on your ground rules. Healthy conflict isn’t all about a good process; it’s also about good behavior. What are going to be your rules for conflict?  How will you handle basic etiquette such as yelling or interrupting?  What will you do to promote effective listening? Who will call out transgressions?

If your team uses a relatively calm period to prepare for more challenging situations to come, you will find the tough times less arduous and much less uncomfortable. While you can’t necessarily anticipate all sources of conflict, you can prepare yourself for difficult decisions.  Thankfully, the more you do to determine how you will deal with conflict, the less conflict you will have.

Further Reading

The Case for More Conflict

Stop Conflict Before it Starts

When Conflict Gets Emotional

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