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How do you handle conflict in a Team?

The following outtake, focused on breaking in to and thriving in the world of marketing, is taken from a recent exclusive recording of an MMC Moments of Truth discussion between Stephanie Leigh-Rose, education and media director at MMC Learning and Malcom Johnston, who is who is a consultant providing strategic support and coaching to businesses having become a leader in customer-centric growth through his years of experience of creating and running strategic marketing, sales, and management functions across multiple businesses.

In this extract, Stephanie and Malcom discuss how to recognise and resolve conflict within a team.

Watch the 13 min video below which will give you an fascinating insight into the above question.

What is the importance of recognising and dealing with team conflict?

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

So how do you handle conflict in a team, what do you think?

Malcolm Johnston:

A lot depends on the level of conflict and the context of the conflict. So let’s start with something that is relatively simple, because it is guided by the laws of the country. In this country, we have laws around discrimination, for example, and conflict can arise that edges into potentially crossing the line in to discrimination.

Therefore when handling that, you need to be aware as a manager of what the laws are relating to things like that and how each of the- let’s say it’s two people- how those two people have got into this situation.

If it is getting into an area you feel is a legal area, best to get HR involved very quickly because they should be the experts at guiding you through this. Now, any conflict in a team can escalate into something potentially involving issues of legality, so this is not an easy area to work in.

Your HR team should be able to help you with formal tools and techniques to handle conflict.

You do as a manager need to be very aware of your own employee handbook, which has useful information about behaviours and misdemeanours. You as a manager will be expected to not just live the behaviours that are in there, but to understand what it means and how to interpret those behaviours for your staff.

So if, for example, one or other members of your staff feels that someone else in the team, or even you, are not behaving in a manner that the employee handbook says you should be behaving in, one of the reasons for referring to the employee handbook is you’ve all signed a contract of employment that says you will obey the employee handbook.

So there is a written contract that says how you should behave. Now, if it’s you they’re complaining about, then you’ve got to get a more senior person to investigate.

Why is it important to resolve team conflict quickly?

Without a shadow of doubt, the most important thing is, and I should have said this right up front is, don’t avoid it, deal with it. It’s far too easy to brush it off and hope it will resolve itself and not to deal with it.

One of the things I thought was actually helpful about the law in America when I worked there, was around discrimination. In America, if someone makes a comment, let’s say in a team meeting, that another member of a team or anyone else who’s in that meeting feels is discriminatory in any way, whether it’s about race or gender or ethnicity; if that person says I’m offended by that, and the manager who is there at the time, doesn’t in front of everyone else there, reprimand the person who made the comment and point out the impact that their comment has had on this other person, then the manager is as liable for that discriminatory remark as the person who made the remark in the first place.

I learned a lot in America when I worked in America, but actually that was one of the more useful things, because I thought actually, yeah, that kind of suggests that I’ve condoned that behaviour in the past.

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

Right. That you’ve allowed it.

Malcolm Johnston:

Exactly, I’ve allowed it. So if you, as a manager, let’s say in a meeting, because it’s an easy situation to think about, pick up on something that you think that another person in the team meeting could interpret as being in some way insulting, discriminatory, I would say even if the other person hasn’t complained, I would take the protagonist to one side and help to educate them in understanding how the phraseology that they used could be considered in certain circumstances to be rude or discriminatory.

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

That’s good because it’s also assuming that person maybe didn’t know what they were saying and it’s in a way that’s non embarrassing. So it’s diffusing a situation before a situation occurs.

What are the common causes of team conflict?

Malcolm Johnston:

Yeah. Or trying to. Now, I mean, you raise a point there about the causes of conflict because actually the causes of conflict are often down to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, differences in culture or context.

So in terms of handling those, the reason I’m mentioning it, is because it’s one of the ways of trying to better understand, is there a real conflict here or is it that something’s been taken out of context.

Is there a misunderstanding about language or the way something has been said that can be easily resolved or relatively easily resolved?

I would say that the handling of a conflict is necessary for a manager to do very quickly. Any time that I have let something go or drift, I have regretted it later. Nipping it in the bud is painful but necessary because it is only going to grow.

Now, I have had a few conflict situations in my team, one where a six foot six New Zealand ex-Olympic rower was bullying a five foot five inch woman in my team. I utterly failed to solve the conflict without him having to eventually be removed and that was partly because for some reason he could not understand that his bulk was intimidating to everyone right from the get go.

He could have been as nice as pie, but that six foot six, big, beefy guy in any situation was going to be quite intimidating. I mean, you were literally looking up to this guy!

But then, his sense of humour and, I think you call them jocks in America, sporty chaps, that kind of thing, his phraseology didn’t sit well with this lady. They weren’t a whole generation apart, but there was a cultural difference and a slight generational difference.

Try as I might to ameliorate the situation, I had, perhaps a slightly oversensitive, young woman, new into the workforce and this guy. And her barriers had already gone up because she wanted to protect herself and he just couldn’t see what the problem was.

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

Oh, a lack of self-awareness?

Malcolm Johnston:

Lack of self-awareness.

How can we resolve team conflict?

I put the whole team, partly because of this, I put all of them through Belbin team roles, hoping that that would help them to understand differences. A means of helping to handle conflict is recognising that, oh, I don’t get on with that person, not because they’re stupid or whatever, but because they have a different team role.

I tried putting both of them through Myers Briggs personality type indicator separately, and with an external facilitator, to try to help them to understand their own personalities better and why that might be causing a friction, and it didn’t work.

Actually in that situation, the HR department was about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. I happened to know about both Belbin and Myers Briggs and brought that in my myself, but your HR department should be able to advise you on this.

If you do need to get two heads together, then it’s always better to have an HR person in the room anyway because if the conflict is starting to escalate, you are very soon going to get into the, she said, he said, I said, you said and you need to start recording stuff at that point, not tape recording necessarily, but you need someone there taking notes.

Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with conflict in a global situation and maybe that is because when dealing with a variety of nationalities, literally in lots of different countries, often overtly we are different. We know we are different because I’m Chinese, you are Japanese, you are Australian, I’m Canadian, whatever, and to an extent, people who enter international businesses from overseas are more aware of international issues.

However, you may come across, as a manager, those sorts of issues. And as I say, they usually come down to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, lack of sensitivity to different cultures.

I have worked with some British people who kind of believe that the empire still exists and that everyone else should just accept the way we are and we don’t have to take any notice of the fact that they may have a completely different view of the world.

Those kinds of people are still around, diminishing fortunately. Anyway, as I say, much of that is just about not understanding the way that someone might interpret the language that you happen to use.

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

Right. Yeah. Words have power.

Malcolm Johnston:

Words have power, and it’s about pointing that out.

As I say, if it was an easy job, everyone would want to do it, but as a manager, you do have to help to protect people. Part of being a team leader is helping to protect the people in your team from other people in your team, so you can get the best out of all of them.

I’ve only ever used Myers Briggs and Belbin, but I would say that helping to understand difference is helpful in avoiding conflict in the first place and there are many psychometric instruments and other management tools out there that would help to understand those differences and give your team a lexicon through which they can discuss how the team is functioning. A common lexicon.

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