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What Causes 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 the common causes of conflict in a team and how to handle team conflict.

Watch the 8 min video below which will give you an fascinating insight into the above question.

What are the common causes of team conflict?

All right. So we chatted about this a little bit earlier, but what causes conflict in a team?

Malcolm Johnston:

Well, if you think about people joining a team and where they have come from in terms of education, to an extent they will have been with other people like them for quite a significant part of their educational journey.

Even when they go to university where they will come across other people, other cultures, their friendship groups are often defined by where they’ve come from in their secondary education. And they seek those out because that’s what you do when you are in a strange place is find people like you.

I know this from teaching at universities when I set students a syndicate exercise, if I ask them to create their own groups, invariably, they will find people from their own nationality, their own cultural background to work with. They will avoid working with anyone from outside of their cultural background.

When I point out to them that, do you know what? When you start work, you ain’t going to have no choice about this guys. You are going to have to work together. And if I do force people from different cultures together, there is always conflict. Much of it unstated, but I can detect it. So, in a work situation, this may be the first time that members of your team have actually had to work closely with other cultures.

When I say other cultures, I’m not necessarily talking about a global business, I’m talking about multicultural Britain, where it may be that depending on where you’ve been brought up this is the first time that someone’s going to have to work with a Muslim woman or a Jewish guy from the east end of London, or which like it or not is a race apart.

So what causes conflict? Misunderstanding, usually differences, unconscious bias or conscious bias.

And that’s why the role of a team leader or team manager is so important because you’ve got to meld these people into a real team that delivers. And just because you are a manager in your, let’s say late 20s, early 30s, remember what it was like when you first started, when you were the new boy, you knew no one. It may well have been the first time for you when you were dealing with different ethnic backgrounds, different genders.

I remember a chap at university that I shared a flat with who had been to an all-boys school, all his life. His hobby was rugby and to quote him, he said, “It’s really weird, Malcolm, I just thought girls were people who didn’t play rugby.” This was in the days when girls did not play rugby!

How can we prevent team conflict occurring?

So you’ve got all those different people coming in and your job is to meld them into a team.

Mostly it’s misunderstanding or lack of understanding. So one of the first things I would do if I was a team manager for a group like that is team building, not immediately going on the let’s all build a raft out of milk bottles and string and see how far across the lake we get before we fall in, et cetera, et cetera. They’ve got their place, those experiential team building weekends or whatever, but first, I would suggest using some psychometric instruments or team building tools.

Belbin probably, I wouldn’t use Myers Briggs, but there are numerous tools out there that can help people to better understand themselves and where they’re coming from. I don’t doubt that there are probably companies out there- and HR should be able to help with this- that run programmes to help people from different ethnic backgrounds, and cultural backgrounds, to understand each other better.

How do differences in culture and background contribute to team conflict?

I happened to go to a school in the east end of London, where there was a fair proportion of Jewish people. So I got to understand a bit about the Jewish community, but I probably didn’t meet anyone from the Muslim community until I was in my 30s. So it depends where you’ve come from and it helps if you understand that.

Now I’ve spoken a lot about ethnic background, cultural background, and the reason is that actually those core things, culture, and race are the building blocks for our behaviours, those things that are dealt to us by nature are the building blocks on top of which comes nurture.

If you can understand those building blocks, what makes someone tick at a core level, it’s much easier to understand what makes them tick in a business context and to share those sorts of things and be open about them.

As I say, I imagine that there are programmes out there that the HR people would know about, which would help to get a team to open up and understand about each other.

I’d like to think that in a more senior level team where you haven’t got relatively junior staff, people have worked out how to work together as a team, but unless you happen to have gone through something like guides or Scouts or a football team or a community group, or any of those organisations that pull people together and you have to work as a team, many people could arrive at work on day one with not a clue how to do that.

If you think about the British education system with the obsession with individual scores, you could arrive at work on the day one without ever having worked as part of a team.

Stephanie Leigh Rose:

It’s no one’s fault. That’s just how one is brought up and then suddenly you go into University and then the workforce. But it really its nice, having the opportunity to interact with the different cultures and then hopefully even if there is conflict, learn from it and move forward.

Malcolm Johnston:

Yeah. We are talking in this leadership and management module about how do we be a better leader? How many people have actually arrived at an organisation or a company and been taught, how to work as a team? Really it should be part of induction- how do you work as part of a team? Because most people have not worked as part of a team when they join a new business.