First: conflict habituation. Conflict management and resolution come later.

We have learned that unless we have something “nice” to say, we should stay silent. Unfortunately, this drives a conflict-avoidant behavior well into our adult lives.

Even well-supported and -founded conflict resolution models (such as the Thomas-Kilmann instrument) are based on the unstated assumption that we know what we want – based on insight into what our own best interests are – and can articulate it, compare it with alternatives, and argue our case.

This fairly analytical view of conflicts skips the “quenching” mechanism coming from not feeling free to speak our minds even when it’s a dumb question or slight critique. Many teams (in fact, most teams I have ever worked with) have a huge “conflict debt”.

Legitimately opposing interests (eg between sales and delivery – does that sound familiar to anyone?) are escalated rather than resolved at an appropriate level, frequently due to our lack of conflict habituation. We avoid tough conversations, rather send an email, right?

We must un-learn the habit of only speaking up when we have something nice to say. This is not about being obnoxiously aggressive. But about acknowledging that we are actually NOT all pulling in the same direction. We often have different, even opposing objectives, sometimes to a level of win/lose.

Before we can start working through our conflicts, we need to get used to their existence; expose ourselves to training in conflict habituation. This needs to be long-term; after all, we are dealing with deeply rooted behaviors.

As part of my work in team development, I offer a 9-step conflict habituation program. Each step is a small exercise, a tiny step towards being able to address conflicting interests without going full-throttle emotional about it.

Step 1 is: Explore facts (or, information presented to you as facts). Ask where they’re from or what they’re based on. Make everyone understand that you’re a team asking questions and not accepting everything as given. Do this for a week and notice how this becomes easier every time you try. Step 2-9 gently introduces increasing levels of pressure and interpersonal risk.

Only when we are relaxed about legitimate conflicts can we bring them to the surface and work on their constructive resolution. A prerequisite for teams looking to be innovative, creative, productive – and friends having fun.

To “belong” or “fit in”

Some teams are developing “house rules” or team charters, to set out to desired tone and behaviors. A great, easy-to-implement process, where unspoken expectations and reservations can be brought to the surface.

Businesses develop company values, where employees’ feeling of being valued and welcome will frequently feature centrally. Sometimes, the employees are even mentioned as the most important thing for the company and encouraged to bring their “true self” to work.

Truly belonging to a team, rather than just fitting in, means being accepted and valued – even if you’re different. Having your special skills and capabilities appreciated, and your background, boundaries and priorities respected.

This first day of the Ramadan is a good occasion to think about operationalizing your team or company value of belonging – or encouraging your employees to bring their “true self to work”. For Ramadan participants, the daily routine changes radically, almost to an extent where day becomes night and vice versa. Some businesses respect that, allowing their employees to start and leave earlier in the day (this is the case at global service giant ISS) or to have shorter working hours.

Team or company values are void of meaning and credibility if they are not expressed as behaviors. As desired behaviors, values become actionable guideposts, not just posters in the reception area.

For team members to “belong” rather than ”fit in” you’ll need to look at how you address sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, etc. The potential discomfort from having such discussions in your team will be totally worthwhile.

Tug-of-war or hanging a tarp?

Engaging in conflict is often thought of as problem behavior to be avoided, especially in a workplace context.

We’re born into this world with a distaste for threats, our brains constantly scanning our environment to avoid or eliminate them. Since conflicts can be hard on relationships, and relationships in turn being something we crave for and need, conflicts can be understood as a threat. This perception continues to be passed on between generations, fuelled by every parent’s urge to train “good behaviors”: being nice to others, staying silent if you have nothing positive to say etc. In Scandinavia in particular, we are nice and polite and stay away from conflict if we can – our social coherence is strong, impacting our behavior quite forcefully.

However, in organizations, harmony is getting us nowhere. Conflict is a requirement for development and growth, and frequently even a foundational element in organizational design. Cross-functional teams have conflict – resolving different or opposed interests – as the main purpose.

In strategic sales pursuits, my primary workplace for the last few decades, a cross-functional team is mobilized to balance the interest of the client with the bidder’s risk profile, financial health etc. Clearly a delicate balance when stakes are high and executive leadership are watching closely. Conflict is perceived as detrimental to teamwork, but the opposite: aiming for harmony, shutting conflict down or letting it simmer under the carpets, may cause important issues to be left un-explored, stifling collaboration and business growth.

Conflict can be very unpleasant, not least when driven by bad behavior, poor performance or skills shortage. We may worry or even ruminate about conversations regarding such topics, and conflict aversion can then lead to conflict avoidance, ie simply not engaging in the conflict.

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument shows conflict as an activity in two dimensions: whether any given approach meets your needs (level of assertiveness) and whether it also meets the other party’s needs (level of cooperative-ness).

Working to meet both sides’ needs is Collaborating, and to meet at least some of both side’s needs is Compromising. A compromise is not the best outcome but the quickest available option, as Chris Voss clearly illustrates in his book Never Split the Difference: a compromise between black and brown shoes is to wear one black and one brown, no swag at all!

Meeting your own need and not caring about the other side is Competing; meeting the needs of the other side without getting anything for yourself is Accommodating; and, finally, not trying to get anyone’s needs met is Avoiding.

Conflict avoidance makes no sense, not for you, not for them. Topics are circumvented and opportunity is drained. You change the subject, don’t call back, skip the meeting – whatever it takes to not face the conflict, making no room for the issue to be dealt with. Conflict-avoidance may buy you time, but it is unlikely to make the conflict disappear. Pressure will build, and the conflict can even grow larger when avoided.

But how to get through it then? Focus on the positive outcomes that awaits when the conflict is resolved. Your emotions will guide you, if you feel strongly about a conflict it’s a sign that it’s touching something important to you. Don’t let emotions take the steering wheel though! Stay calm, constructive and kind. Hard? Yes, but not as hard as it sounds.

A useful analogy: see conflict as a process like the one of hanging a tarp over your tent. A good result requires people pulling from each corner; if one corner pulls much harder than the other three, the tarp won’t hang properly.  It’s not a tug-of-war.

Following the Conflict Code, developed by Liane Davey in “The Good Fight”, you may prevent most conflicts and make the ones that are left, more productive and less taxing on your well-being. The model is a three-step approach: “Establish a line of communication”, “Create a connection” and “Contribute to a solution”.  Liane Davey includes a set of exercises to train how to enable proactive management of tensions and interdependencies in a cross-functional teams.

Conflict management is included in the half-day course “Teamwork in the Gig economy”, an event designed for leaders, project managers and teams wanting to improve collaboration, performance and respect. The event is introducing participants to foundational skills for contemporary working life – willpower, self-awareness, coaching, resilience, and can be tailored to fit actual needs in your team. More information here.

Will team dinners improve performance? The short answer is “No”

Business borrowed the term “team” from the world of sports, to label an interim group of people mobilized to deliver towards a common goal (product, project). We’re hoping the team will inherit the glory and sense of purpose glowing from National Teams, along with the motivation to train hard to be amongst the prospects; to actually get selected; and to fight like a champion once you’ve made it “all the way”.

We’re setting the highest standards for team performance, and we understand that teams don’t just go to work. They need to be built! Some will look to Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development to understand the relationship-dynamics in teams, starting off as a loosely connected group of individuals, evolving in four clearly identifiable stages: Forming, Storming, Norming – and finally: Performing.  Others may believe teams will flourish if the individual personalities are sourced and joined in certain ways, using tools such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Or other approaches, or a mix over time, as teams are continuously built and re-built.

As a team leader, in your day-to-day work you will typically nurture two types of coherence: task and social coherence, maybe sometimes stimulating the latter to improve the former. Meaning: team dinners or “outings” to improve performance.

However, the task/social coherence presents a classical chicken-and-egg problem: will a team with coherent and logically interdependent task also enjoy a great social life, or vice versa – a team having fun socially will make an extra effort to work together well? Research points to task-coherence as the decisive factor.

To understand task coherence, let’s borrow some more from the world of sports:

  • A team of single-sculler rowers will have a low task cohesion. Although the athletes may be part of the same delegation, they don’t have to work together but will each be in their own boat;
  • A relay team of swimmers or runners will be acting serially, one will prepare the action for the next to complete in a pro-act/re-act chain – you could argue such a team has medium task coherence;
  • A football team has high task coherence, each athlete continuously working with the others – passing the ball, maintaining a position, coordinating attacks

In terms of performance, social coherence is irrelevant for the task – only task coherence is needed (in some contexts, social coherence can even be detrimental to performance, diluting competition between team members). The sense of doing everything for the team is documented to be greater in teams that require extensive interaction, coordination and cooperation.

Social cohesion may increase as a result of success. Everyone loves winning, and winning may lead us to see teammates in a more favorable light.  At the other end of the social cohesion spectrum, the notion of being stuck with a group of people you really don’t like, or where the level of competition is excessive, is not very attractive. Social cohesion doesn’t hurt, spending time with people you like is endlessly more pleasant.

However, it’s imperative for performance to stay on-task. If you come across a team with an amazing social life, but little task cohesion, it’s time to refocus on the set goals (even at the expense of the good vibes). As a team leader wanting to promote team success, pay attention to the way the team collaborates, look out for the effects of competition and collaboration, and also have a keen eye for individual goals.

Pleasant and fun as they surely often are, social events will stimulate many things – company loyalty, family support, employer brand, etc. But in terms of performance, team dinners are really only dinners with the team.