“The opportunity to engage in intense, open debate over business decisions is thrilling for teams. They respond by offering the very best of their analytical powers.” (Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix)
When handled effectively, conflict holds a huge creative potential. If we want to be more innovative, we therefore have to get more comfortable with conflict. The best way of doing that is to teach yourself and your teams better conflict management skills.
This was the key message of my presentation at the Swiss Project Management Conference in Zurich on 5 September 2019.
Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument
The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument offers a simple and intuitive framework for effective conflict management. It defines five basic conflict-handling modes: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating.
Your behaviour is function of both the situation and your personality, especially your natural inclinations towards assertiveness and cooperativeness.
While the first four modes represent win-lose situations, collaborating supports innovation and win-win solutions. Collaborating might therefore sound like the ideal solution but, as we will see below, this is not always the case.
Every mode is best depending on the situation
In an emergency, where quick, decisive action is vital, competing might be the best course of action. Accommodating, on the other hand, can be an effective way to build goodwill when an issue is much more important to the other party than it is to you.
Avoiding can be used if the issue is not very important, or if you need to postpone a discussion until a better time, for instance, in the case of stress or emotional overwhelm. If you need to find a quick and mutually acceptable solution to a problem that is moderately important to both parties, compromising is probably the best mode.
Collaborating – the most complex mode
Collaborating requires time, a strong basis of trust and a reward system that actively fosters cooperation and teamwork. When interactions are effective and the concerns of both parties are too important to be compromised, it is worth the effort.
I recommend that you respect the following key principles when using this mode:
- Define conflict management standards: Set the terms of debate explicitly to avoid mean spirited or counter-productive conflict. Avoid the four team toxins.
- Align around something bigger: Agree on what is more important than the separate points of view (e.g. shared goals, ideals or values).
- Show respect and curiosity: Hold a genuine desire to understand the other person’s needs and discover the bases of their view.
- Debate vigorously with integrity: Champion your view based on the merits of your case, not just for the sake of winning the argument.
- Discover creative new win-win solutions: Look for new solutions that satisfy the needs of all parties.
Since our personality also plays an important role, it is useful to become more aware of which behavioural mode(s) you might be unconsciously overusing.
Too much competing might backfire in the long run by creating ill feelings and disengaging people around you. On the other hand, too much accommodating might leave you feeling deprived of influence and recognition, or lead to escalation at a later stage.
If you find yourself devoting too much time to discussing trivial issues that don’t seem to warrant it, you might be overusing the collaborating mode. Conversely, it is also counterproductive to spend too much energy on avoiding issues that need to be faced and resolved.
Finally, excessive compromising might lead to too many sub-optimal solutions and people losing sight of the larger issues.
Assessing conflict situations
In order to best meet your own and other people’s needs, learn to assess the key characteristics of every conflict situation.
For example, ask yourself how important the issue and the relationship are for both people, and if there is enough trust and time to enter into a collaborative discussion. Also assess whether whether cultural norms and the reward system encourage people to share their real needs and concerns.
Apply the mode which is likely to be most effective with care, sensitivity and respect. And, if the situation changes, you can switch to a different mode.
Finally, in order to handle conflict gracefully, always strive to improve your listening and communication skills as well as your ability to manage your emotions!
You might already be familiar with the COIN acronym, which provides an easy-to-remember, four-step process to plan and structure constructive feedback conversations:
CONNECTION > OBSERVATION > IMPACT > NEXT STEPS
In the heat of the moment, difficult conversations can easily become confrontational and end up hurting the relationship. COIN is therefore a golden formula if you sometimes struggle to express assertiveness in a way that is both fair, firm and clear. And let’s be honest, this probably applies to most of us!
It is important to remember that whenever you get upset about something, it is often because an important value of yours has been violated. In this post, I will therefore show you how you can enhance the traditional COIN formula by identifying and naming this particular value.
It is easier to unite around values, so make sure you elevate the conversation to include a reflection on the values you both agree on. This will also allow you to become more creative when searching for possible collaborative solutions.
Here is an example to illustrate the Value-COIN process:
Connect to the other person’s goals and interests by showing that you understand their situation or by acknowledging something that is important to them.
Example: “I know you are working very hard and that one of your personal goals is to successfully complete this project so that you can increase your chances of getting promoted.”
Share specific, accurate, and quick factual observations about their behaviour in a neutral way and without passing any judgment.
Example: “Recently, I have noticed that you always come late to our weekly coordination meetings…”
Clarify the impact that their actions had on you, the team, or the business in order to inspire empathy. Use “I” statements, and focus on feelings, not facts and logic. This is also where you should reflect on which important value you feel has been disregarded and make sure you highlight the same in your conversation.
Example: “When you don’t show up on time, I get the feeling you don’t think our meetings are important, or that you don’t respect me and my time.”
4. NEXT STEPS
Specify why honouring this value is important for the relationship and tell them what you need from them. Suggest or ask for their ideas on what could/should be done differently in the future. It is important to remain encouraging and to focus on finding a collaborative solution.
Example: “This is a good opportunity to reflect on what values we would like to foster within the team. I’m sure we both agree that mutual respect is vital for us to work well together and successfully complete this project on time. I would therefore like us to commit to respecting each other’s time and role in this project by being on time for our next meetings, and to inform each other up front if we expect to be delayed. Is that OK with you?
Remember that feedback is something best delivered in private and in a timely fashion, and that the main intention should be to help the other person grow. People are less defensive and more receptive when they understand that you are aware of their challenges, interested in their development, and appreciative of their efforts. As a result, difficult conversations are much easier to navigate if you have invested time in building trust beforehand
Finally, I encourage you to also use the same process for positive feedback conversations. Giving praise in a profound and meaningful way can be challenging too. The COIN framework can therefore help you find the right words. And make sure you mention the positive value modelled by the other person’s behaviour.
Relationship expert and best-selling author Dr. John Gottman has identified four specific behaviors that often get in the way of communication and strong, collaborative relationships: Blaming, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
When used frequently, these toxic communication patterns are so lethal to human relationships that Dr. Gottman calls them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” In the context of teams, they are usually referred to as “The Four Team Toxins.”
Nobody is perfect, and we all tend to fall prey to these toxic behaviors, be it at home or in the ofﬁce. It is therefore perfectly normal that team toxins occur even in the most successful relationships. The difference is that in strong and healthy relationships they occur less frequently, and when they do, the parties are more effective at neutralizing them.
Awareness of the team toxins and being able to identify them when they appear, both in our own behavior and that of others, is a necessary first step to eliminating them. However, knowledge alone is not enough. We must also learn to replace these toxins with more constructive and healthy behaviors – the so-called “antidotes.”
In this summary you will find a powerful mixture of antidotes consisting of assertiveness, constructive communication, positivity & appreciation, as well as a healthy dose of playfulness!
Click here to read the full summary: The Team Toxins and Their Antidotes
As coaches, we have a suitcase full of tools and are constantly developing new ones. However, if we were to talk about minimalism in team coaching, I’m convinced that one tool alone would have the power to transform the world and improve the way in which human beings relate to each other.
Below, I will refer to this powerful instrument as the “Team Contract” but, as we say in Scandinavia, “a beloved child has many names” so it could also be called “Team Alliance” or “Team Charter” or any other name that best suits your particular circumstances.
Although this concept is traditionally used within a business context, the same instrument can easily be repurposed for any kind of human relationship, be it private or professional.
The main purpose of the Team Contract is to identify mutual expectations and create a solid basis for alignment, trust, and constructive interaction within a team. On an organizational level, it could form an integral part of the overall strategy and the Company Code of Conduct.
The Team Contract can be created via a simple three-step discussion procedure in just a few hours, depending on the size of the team. These discussions should ideally be guided by an external facilitator to allow the team to remain focused on the content of the dialogue and to ensure an effective process void of personal and organizational bias.
Here’s how it works:
1. Team Purpose
The team’s purpose answers the question “Why does the team exist?” both in terms of the end it is trying to achieve or the future it wants to create (vision) and the means to get there (mission).
The mission and vision statements should be authentic, meaningful, and inspirational to the team members. They do not need to be wholly unique, so the focus should be on getting the content right and keeping it short, preferably one sentence for each statement.
2. Team Values
Values are critical, because they define the team’s personality and provide team members with clarity about how to behave, thereby reducing the need for inefficient and demoralizing micromanagement.
CORE VALUES: Identify a maximum of three core values for the team. These are deeply held personal principles and convictions that the team members stand for. It is vital to choose core values for which you are already “walking the walk” and “talking the talk,” otherwise it will simply generate cynicism and distrust. A value is only core if you know that you would always hold onto it, even if the environment ceased to reward you, or perhaps even penalized you, for holding this value.
ASPIRATIONAL VALUES: Identify a maximum of two aspirational values for the team. These are qualities that you would like to have and believe you need to develop in order to maximize your success as a team.
DESIRED BEHAVIOURS: In order to cement the team values and make them tangible for future guidance, reflect on what the team values mean in terms of behavior. In other words, create vivid statements for the desired behaviour that will help you cultivate and grow the team values.
VALUE CHAMPIONS: Ensure co-responsibility for maintaining the desired team culture by nominating at least one “value champion” per team value. Being a value champion means the chosen team member has both the right and the responsibility to speak up, not only when the value is being violated, but also in appreciation whenever this value is being honored by the team in an exemplary way.
3. Action Planning
As a final and most crucial step to ensure that the Team Contract will be an effective instrument, the team must decide on which actions are needed to make sure the contract is carefully recorded and remains a living tool that is updated and referred to on a regular basis.
In this case, I would invite you to be creative and playful. Some kind of visual representation of the Team Contract that can be posted somewhere where it is visible to the whole team on a regular basis would be good. I also recommend that you make it a standard item on the agenda of your regular team meetings to reflect on where you are with regard to the Team Contract and to make adjustments, if necessary.
Having an open and honest dialogue about the team’s values and what it stand for is actually just as important as the values and the purpose chosen. An important function of the Team Contract is therefore to give the team a framework for continuous reflection and learning that helps it to stay on course.
Ideally, this basic version of the Team Contract should be further enhanced with a set of mutually agreed guidelines for constructive conflict management. In my sustainable teambuilding program, I also suggest additional training concerning diversity, roles, change management, etc.
Without a doubt, the Team Contract is a powerful tool to ensure alignment, trust, and constructive interaction within a team. As such, it can even be considered the foundation for a healthy and cohesive team culture that fosters high morale, high performance, and, ultimately, high value for all stakeholders.
Imagine a world in which the Team Contract would be a standard operating procedure of every work team and every organization.
Do you think it would make a difference?
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
– Leonardo da Vinci –
This version of the Team Contract is inspired by various sources listed in my Recommended Resources page.