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Collaboration: It’s All in the Conflict Management

Recently, I worked with a leadership team within a marketing support group at a consumer goods company.  Among their objectives was the desire to increase collaboration on the team.  As with many teams, theirs is pulled in various directions and is called upon to serve a variety of clients.  To add to their challenges, most of the team is spread out among several floors in their headquarters building, while some team members work virtually.  So, in any given day, the 30 or so team members are in different places, serving different clients, and have different goals.  Sound familiar?  Anyway, the team leaders really believe that collaboration will help improve the quality of the solutions they provide to clients.  For example, Team A serving Client A creates a solution that would help Client B, but Team B doesn’t have any idea this new solution exists.  (This scenario might also sound familier to you.)  It’s not hard to see that collaboration would probably improve results.  And, it might make the team feel more “connected”.  The challenge is not getting people motivated to collaborate, it’s getting people motivated to deal with conflict that might be prohibiting collaboration.

A March 2005 HBR article that I recently came across helped me crystallize my thinking about the challenges of this particular team, and for that matter, most any team seeking to improve collaboration.  Instead of taking action to boost communications, enhance teamwork, and cross-pollinate, try looking for conflicts that make collaboration difficult or impossible.  (I don’t have to point out that I still think there’s value in communications, teamwork and cross-pollination, right?)  As leaders, we need to think about what we can do to smooth the way for our team.  Sometimes, that means “clearing” the way.  And conflict can be a huge obstacle.  So, where to begin?

  1. Be willing to look at conflict as constructive.  As Patrick Lencioni argues in his great teamwork tome The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, conflict is nothing more than a difference of opinion.  Generally speaking, conflict gets a bad rap.  We tend to believe that all conflict is bad, when the way people deal with the conflict is more likely what’s “bad”.  Conflict can highlight alternative perspectives, reveal underlying flaws, and create a catalyst for change.  It can be a good thing and needs to be recognized accordingly.
  2. Accept that there is conflict in your organization.  This is hard for a lot of leaders to do.  Not many people like to admit that there is conflict.  (See item #1 for the reason why.)  But, where there are people and relationships, there is conflict.  So, instead of fighting it or insisting it doesn’t exist, go with the flow (so to speak) and let there be a place for conflict.
  3. Create a “safe zone” for conflict.  Outside of just acknowledging that conflict exists, you need to create a culture where conflict is allowed and where individuals have the tools and time to sort things through.  What does your team see when you are faced with conflict.  Do they see you react, avoid or blame?  Or, do they see you listen, acknowledge different opionions, and seek to find common ground?  Your role modeling is the first step in creating culture.  Beyond that, you’d be well served to develop some ground rules (or “norms” as Lencioni calls them) for how to deal with conflict.
  4. Invite your team to participate.  When you do create conflict ground rules or norms, invite your team to weigh in on how they’d like the environment to look or feel when conflict arises.  They’ll be more likely to practice the norms if they’re a part of developing them.  At the very least, when conflict arises, invite the team (or key stakeholders) into the resolution process.  Managing conflict takes practice, and naturally, can be a little messy.  The more your team participates in it, the better equipped they’lll be to handle it.

I think most individuals want to collaborate with others and understand the value of collaboration toward achieving great results.  But, as human beings, we all tend to let conflict get in the way of our best intentions.  So, help your team out by cultivating an environment where conflict is not a bad thing and giving them the tools to deal with it when it does arise.

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