Unmanaged Conflict: The longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get

I’ve been spending A lot of time lately helping our clients to deal with conflict. But before you roll your eyes, the conflict isn’t the problem. It’s the other thing that’s rotting your team to its core…

The problem isn’t conflict

You definitely want conflict. Do any reading on high performing teams, business growth, engaged employees, etc and any credible source will say that conflict is a key healthy driver of outcomes.

When someone is unhappy with another person missing a deadline, having them work through that is great. Letting them hash it out and land on a solution is great too. As long as things don’t get out of hand, it’s perfect for you as the leader.

Well managed conflict has never destroyed a team or stunted growth.  What’s far more sinister and erodes the cohesion of the team to nothingness isn’t that.

What I’m seeing killing teams and companies is the lack of conflict and escalation channels for conflict.  What does that mean, practically?

Symptoms of unmanaged conflict… or outright scheming

When you walk into an organisation as a new hire, consultant or customer you can pretty quickly tell how a place ‘feels’ to work at. The way people look at each other, the comments that get said (and go unsaid) and a whole set of behaviours that make working with teams so interesting (and enjoyable). 

When conflict goes unmanaged and leaders don’t lead their teams out of those dark places, terrible things happen. People feel bullied, employees feel disengaged, teamwork dies off, metrics/goals start to suffer, etc. Suddenly, your job as a leader becomes MUCH more difficult.

So, how might you know if you have a problem with conflict going unmanaged? Well here are some symptoms:

  • Complaining About Each Other To Everyone Else —If people are b*tching about Sally to everyone except Sally, then you have a problem. People not telling each other the issue directly is toxic!
  • Meeting After The Meeting — Do issues get handled in the meeting or do people meet in the hallway afterwards in subgroups to chat about the thing that should have been said in the meeting?
  • Increased Sick Time — When things get uncomfortable or people aren’t getting along, increased sick time is a CLEAR red flag that people aren’t coping well with the unmanaged issues.
  • Attempted Public Executions — Do people try to snipe each other in the meetings? For example, does Sally only hear about the issue Joe has with her for the first time in the meeting in front of her boss, where she has no time to fix it or even have prepared for it (since she didn’t know in the first place)? Not good.

It’s time to invite conflict

I know, I know. Conflict is no fun. But is it meant to be, or is it about your leadership creating the impact and place to work that people need it to be? If you want to get your people to a better place and stop the festering conflict, here are a few high-level items you can start with:

  • Create a Conflict Policy – No, not some crazy corporate mumbo jumbo. This is your team’s informal rules around conflict. It covers items like how we tell people we have a problem with them, what to do if people can’t resolve conflict, etc. This is tremendously valuable in getting people ‘unstuck’.
  • Have An Amnesty Period – Unresolved conflicts can linger for years and rot the team to its core. Instead of pretending an older conflict isn’t valid anymore because “it’s been years and they should just get over it”, you can offer an amnesty period. Coach the team through the issue and tell them no one is going to suffer any consequences for this as long as everyone agrees to get it out on the table and finally take action to resolve it.
  • Teach Them How To Resolve Conflict – Sometimes people avoid conflict because they simply don’t know how to give feedback or have difficult conversations. It’s one of the most common skills I help teams: how to have healthy conflict conversations. Get them the help in doing this and your life will get much easier.

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