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Get a “grip” to resolve team conflict

August 8, 2013

By Charley Morrow

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how teams form and the importance of conflict. Effective leaders need to help their teams resolve conflict. Simply asking what’s going on sometimes works, but often the issues are deeper. When we see conflict in a team, it shows up in how people communicate (or don’t), how they treat each other, and sometimes in the level of emotion they express. When asked privately, team members will often say of each other: “I just do not like her” or “He’s incompetent” or “They just don’t get it.” The worst is when you hear: “It’s just a personality conflict” or “I don’t trust him.” What can you do with that?

You can try to encourage people to understand each other better and to celebrate the differences on the team. But, what we have found is that most conflicts don’t come from personalities, competence, or trustworthiness. Many times, conflicts arise simply because of competition for resources in the larger department or differences in compensation plans. In other words, team members are simply proxies for conflicts that are happening elsewhere in the organization or are a reflection of lack of alignment in the larger organizational strategy. Acknowledging that some conflicts are a reflection of larger organizational conflicts and recognizing that the team still has a mission and work to do often starts to dissipate the conflict.

In our Team Effectiveness Assessment (TEA), there’s a model we use for resolving team conflicts that stems from specific issues within the team. To understand these conflicts, you have to look below the surface. The (GRPI) model uses four simple questions about Goals, Roles and responsibilities, Processes, and Interpersonal relationships to help uncover what’s causing conflict within a team:

Goals–Do we have clear and consensual goals and a shared mission?

Roles and responsibilities—Are members clear on what is expected of them?

Processes–Does the team have planning, decision-making, and problem-solving routines?

Interpersonal relationships–Are members getting stuck in conflicts and dysfunctional interactions?

It works from the bottom up. So, if you have an interpersonal challenge that you can’t seem to resolve, start by asking questions about processes, roles, and ultimately, goals. Chances are, you’ll be able to diagnose a root cause for the conflict that’s below the surface in one of these areas.

GRPI can help when you’re establishing a new team too. When forming a new team, you work from the top down. Start by establishing goals, then understand who will do what, then develop norms for team interactions and then finally address interpersonal issues such as differences in styles and personality.

There are also many places where conflicts stem from issues outside of the team and these can be a challenge to identify. For example, if the larger organization has not provided the resources and tools the team needs to be successful, or if incentive compensation systems encourage one team member to win at another’s expense, or if different departments have different political agendas, team leadership goes outside of the team and manages the environment that is putting the team into conflict.

Conflict can help pull a team together or rip it apart. How do you deal with it?

More about Charley

Morrow_Charley_2Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions. He’s also an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance. Follow him on Twitter @CharleyMorrow.


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