Unresolved conflict can cripple even the best of teams

Whenever two or more people are working together, butting heads and locking horns is inevitable from time to time.

But what happens when conflict remains unresolved?

  • Trust erodes, psychological safety evaporates and relationships break down
  • Collaboration decreases as isolation increases
  • The toxic nature and negative impact affect morale and productivity

Conflict can be so insidious that team members are often unaware of how it affects their own choices, biases, and behaviour.

Team conflict often triggers increased passive aggression, reactivity, exclusion and bullying. Even those not directly involved will still be affected.

It’s tempting to hope it will all blow over and those involved will ‘sort it out and get on with it’. After all, ‘I love dealing with conflict’, said no leader ever!

Thankfully, there is a simple way to resolve team conflict but before we get to it, we need to understand what’s behind it.

Why Team Conflict Happens

1. Lack of shared understanding of team purpose, responsibilities and goals

In the ‘busyness’ and dynamic nature of work, it’s easy to lose sight of what the team is actually there to achieve. As each team member’s understanding morphs over time, it’s common for members to pull in different directions.

2. Decision making boundary assumptions

Without clarification, decision-making boundaries become blurred. Team members escalating decisions they should make themselves is a common leadership frustration. Likewise, assuming authority that has not been given can also be problematic.

3. Misaligned values and lack of agreed behaviours

Values and behaviours are highly personal and open to individual interpretation. To one person, respect means being on time for meetings. To someone else, it means listening without interruption. Both are right and neither is wrong!

4. Personality, style, gender, age and cultural differences

Diversity is the lifeblood of team success. Reflective of values and behaviours, these differences often lead to frustration and disconnect. Introversion vs extroversion; team harmony vs results focus, gender stereotyping and diverse ethnicity are common examples. Lack of self-awareness can unintentionally cause deep offense.

5. Ineffective ways of working

What worked yesterday often hinders performance and productivity today. Has your team reviewed their regular meetings and communication channels lately? While online chat fosters informal conversations, it can also be a big time suck.

Leadership Action: Keep a log of how many hours a week you spend observing, listening to, navigating, and mediating team conflict. Even minor disagreements can take up a surprising amount of time.

Thankfully, there is a simple way to ‘reset’ a team that is experiencing conflict.

The Team Charter Solution

A Team Charter sets agreed standards and removes assumptions on a single page. The team is far more likely to own and live by a charter because they co-created it.

Why Team Chartering Works

The exercise involves creating a safe environment for important conversations. Team Chartering:

  • Expands perspectives and shifts the focus from ‘I’ to ‘We’
  • Clarifies and aligns the team’s purpose and impact, reaffirming their ‘Why’
  • Gives the team the confidence to decide or escalate.
  • Encourages team members to adhere to agreed behaviours and hold one another accountable.
  • Creates the opportunity to change ways of working that no longer work. Removing meetings that no longer add value or changing their format can be an immense help for time-poor teams.
  • Provides leaders with a concrete tool to manage performance. Because the team creates the Charter, it removes subjectivity and individual interpretation.
  • Provides an easy way to onboard new team members so they know what’s expected from Day One.

How to Create a Team Charter

Depending on the size of the team, a facilitated workshop will take 2 – 3 hours. Held on line or in person, it involves whole and small group discussions.

After ‘setting the scene’ (why we’re here and how it’s going to work), task the team with defining:

  • Purposewhy we exist.
  • Decision Making Boundarieswhat we can decide and what we need others to decide.
  • Values, Standards and Observable Behaviourswhat we believe and expect of ourselves and each other.
  • Ways of Workingeffectiveness review of regular meetings, communication channels, common processes etc.

Once agreed, they transfer these elements to a one-page document. Demonstrating their commitment, each team member then signs the Charter.

Note: While the Team Leader can facilitate, concurrently remaining impartial, whilst observing and contributing can be challenging.

Avoiding the Most Common Team Chartering Trap

Facilitating Team Chartering Workshops for hundreds of clients for over 15 years, there is one easily avoidable trap that many teams fall into. I call it the ‘Set and Forget’ mistake.

Typically, teams feel a sense of relief and empowerment once they’ve created and agreed to their Charter. For the first few weeks, they refer to it. Then, as the ‘busyness of work’ takes over, the Charter is forgotten.

For Team Chartering to be effective, it must become part of the team culture and embedded into daily work. Like a compass, it keeps the team focused on what matters most - heading in the same direction and staying on track.

Implementation is simply a matter of:

  • Actively referring to it in meetings
  • Using it to resolve disagreements
  • Rewarding active demonstration of agreed behaviours
  • Managing performance, as a basis for regular performance reviews
  • Individual responsibility and KPI setting
  • Sharing it with other stakeholder and teams to increase understanding
  • Negotiating scope when the team is asked to take on additional responsibilities.

It’s also vital for the team to review and revise their Charter every six months. Simply update it to reflect changes to the team’s purpose, members, priorities and work practices.

Summary - Team Chartering:

  1. Works for any team at any stage - forming, storming, norming and performing.
  2. Is one of the simplest ways to quickly extinguish conflict fires and take any team from struggling to high performing.
  3. Empowers and enables a team by restoring and sustaining psychological safety - swapping conflict for unity.

So… for the sake of a couple of hours… what has your team got to lose and gain by creating their very own charter?

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron

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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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