The Secret to Help Teams Stop Avoiding Conflict

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Wendy was in tears.  She was exhausted and completely demoralized.

Always a straight- A student, Wendy was feeling the pangs of failure. On this new project team, she felt undervalued and overlooked. The team operated as though she were invisible. They’d discuss things and make decisions without her.

As we continued our coaching session, Wendy confided in me that she’d never felt so stupid in her life.  She felt completely stuck. She asked me,

What can I do?

I turned the question back around.

What do you think you can do?

Silence. She really was stuck.

Do you think you can talk to your teammates about how you’re feeling?

Wendy’s eyes widened and face blanched. You would have thought I’d asked her to swallow some poison.

Talk to them!?

Wendy was a classic conflict avoider.

Teamwork Is Difficult

You already know that teamwork = hard work.

Why is it so hard?

Because working on a team means working with others.

Others who see, think, and act differently than you do.

This leads to a lack of alignment.  A variance of vision.  A dispute on direction.

These differences prime the pump for conflict.  Like Wendy, there are many people would rather avoid conflict than deal with it.

In Tuckman’s model of team development (Forming / Storming / Norming / Performing) avoiding conflict will keep you stuck in the”forming” phase.

This is also known as “pseudo-team”, or “nice”.  On the surface, things seem to be okay, but scratch a millimeter below and it quickly becomes clear that the team’s effectiveness is seriously compromised.

In the “nice” phase, people are more committed to not rocking the boat than getting things done. The status quo is king.

At the end of our coaching session, Wendy said she’d think about addressing the group directly at their next meeting.  From her affect, I put the odds that she’d follow through and actually step up at about 50/50.

I checked in with the team after that meeting. Wendy hadn’t said anything.  The conflict continued to be avoided.

Then, something remarkable happened.

After the team hit their next project milestone, I met with all six of them.  I asked them if they’d be willing to try an experiment.

First, I explained how many businesses typically operate:

  1. People work long and hard to achieve a result (project milestone, deliverable, etc.)
  2. The result is achieved.
  3. Without coming up for air, people go back and repeat steps 1 and 2 over and over again.

I suggested to the team that they add something between steps 2 and 3.  

I invited them to hold a five minute team meeting.

During this meeting, they’d take turns and go around and say one thing they appreciate about every other member of the team.  They would acknowledge how that other person contributed to the success of achieving that project milestone.

They began.  And this is when the magic happened.

Towards the end of the appreciations, Wendy (with no prompting from anyone) added in something else.  She opened up and spoke candidly about how she’d been feeling earlier in their team process.

Wendy hadn’t been ready for a “conflict resolution session”.  It felt too risky.

But here, in the warm glow of the appreciation round, Wendy found the courage to be vulnerable, honest and direct.

Who says that workplace conflicts have to be a battle?  Why do the opposing sides need to “fight” to be heard?

What Wendy and her team illustrated was the transformative power of psychological safety.  According to research, psychological safety is the single most important factor that enables a team to operate well.

There are many ways to go about creating psychological safety.  Yet, here’s the secret that Wendy and her team discovered: One of the quickest and most effective routes to help people feel safe is to appreciate them.

Postscript:  Wendy’s opening prompted the team to have a constructive talk about their differences, and led them to find new operating norms. Their conversation wasn’t easy.  But by engaging openly, they were able to move their team to a whole new level of performance.

What other ways do you create psychological safety? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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