It is inevitable that conflict will come up in our personal and professional relationships. Misunderstandings, frustrations, and poor management can lead to passive-aggressive interactions and bad feelings between coworkers and managers, which can lead to poor work performance and turnover. And let’s face it… We don’t like conflict! We try to avoid it, and when confronted with it, we don’t know how to move through it. So, we “vent” our frustrations to our coworkers instead of approaching conflict directly and in a productive way. The truth is, not many of us were taught good communication skills in our childhood. I know I didn’t have good role models in this area! I grew up in a household that yelled a lot. Over the course of my adulthood, I have had to learn what good communication is and how to productively solve issues within my relationships. This takes work and practice to get good at, and in the workplace, it is no different.
A few years ago, I was managing a front office team that just didn’t get along. Almost daily I had someone in my office complaining or telling on another employee for any of a host of reasons. It was affecting their work performance and creating a team dynamic that no one wanted to be a part of. I began thinking about what the qualities of a healthy relationship were and asked myself how I could apply these within this team. I began structuring a meeting that would achieve three things: 1) An opportunity for everyone to have a voice and to be heard; 2) A request that each member of the team commit to two things that they will do that will improve the team; 3) Create a new Operating Agreement that I could use every day to manage the team. Thus, the Conflict Resolution Meeting was born!
I began by setting the stage. I emailed the group and asked them to bring a two things to the meeting. 1) 1-2 items that they wanted to share that was bothering them about the functionality of the team. I asked them to structure their comments in the form of “I” statements that would allow the other members of the team to understand what their frustrations were rather than create defensiveness or blame; 2) Write down two things that they would commit to helping improve the team. In other words, what we could count on them for in the future. I also encouraged them not to consult with other team members when preparing their statements. I wanted to hear their unique voice, rather than any agreement from a group of people.
Before the meeting, I wrote the Code of Conduct on a flipchart and gathered the group at a circular conference table. There is intention around getting the group in a circle. It puts everyone on an equal playing field, takes out any heirarchial structure, and encourages productive communication. The Code of Conduct was also important to establish at the beginning, since tensions within the team dynamic were already high. The agreements I wrote were:
- Speak truthfully, but respectfully
- Maintain professionalism at all times
- No blaming, shaming, or ganging up on others
- No aggressive language or body gestures
- Be an “active” listener
After I received a verbal agreement from each member of the team, we began the meeting. I instructed each person to share what had been frustrating them. Each employee had the undivided attention from the other members of the team and there was not any back-and-forth conversation during this time. Everyone was able to be completely heard, without interruption from others. After this was completed, I opened it up for a short discussion for any other frustrations to be aired and to begin talking about potential solutions to these problems.
The next round was an opportunity for each team member to commit to two things they would actively do to improve the team. Many times, people will get into the habit of blaming everyone else for their frustrations and fall into passive-aggressive communication patterns, such as gossiping. Asking for a commitment gave them an opportunity to be an active participate in improving the team dynamics and hold them responsible for their part as valuable members of the group.
The last section was the crux of the meeting! I asked the group to come up with a new Operating Agreement that we would all commit to as we moved forward. I wrote their ideas on the board and asked a couple of questions: 1) What are our new commitments moving forward? 2) What are we all agreeing to as a new way of interacting with each other? The group then brainstormed ideas on how they would communicate and behave going forward such as: Address issues as they come up, rather than leaving them to fester; Address issues with the person, rather than other teammates; Speak respectfully; Be nice; Trust each other; etc. One standard that I, as the manager/facilitator, needed to ensure got onto the agreement was addressing issues with the person they were frustrated with rather than other teammates. This is essential to building a healthy team that trusts and respects each other, so if you are leading one of these meetings, and the team does not come up with this particular agreement, make sure you, as the facilitator, gets this it onto the document! At the close of the meeting, I read the new Operating Agreement to the group and thanked everyone for their contributions. I then drew up the agreement and had each team member sign it and posted it in the breakroom.
It's important to note that this is a starting point, not a miracle cure for dysfunctional or struggling teams. The manager can expect that behaviors will resurface in the future, and they certainly did on my team. When they do, the manager will remind the staff member of the Operating Agreement and coach them on the next steps to improve the relationship. For instance, if an employee comes to you complaining about another employee, ask them if they have addressed this with the person they are frustrated with privately and respectfully. The manager is there to support the staff and mediate if the conversation does not go the way they intended it to, but you want the Operating Agreement to be a living document that can be used as a management tool to keep the group focused on the new way of communicating and interacting with each other. The success of the Operating Agreement will depend on the manager’s commitment to keep it alive within the group and hold team members accountable for their personal agreements.
Lastly, the manager needs to make sure that they can be a neutral party when leading the meeting. If the manager is part of the issues the team has or doesn't feel they can stay objective, they will need to become a participant and have a different manager or facilitator run the meeting on their behalf. Neutrality and objectivity must be characteristics of the facilitator or the meeting can go off the tracks quickly. Running a meeting like this requires the leader to be able to hold a container for the group that encourages a different style of communication that wasn't present before, so if you are the manager of this group and don't feel confident you can stay objective, find a facilitator that has the ability to do so.
It is possible that the manager will need to facilitate another meeting with a similar structure if negative behaviors continue. It is usually one or two people who won’t follow the agreement for one reason or another. They may need to assess removing that employee from the team if they cannot participate in the new way of communicating and conducting themselves. If the manager uses the Operating Agreement as a management tool to continue to build the team morale and trust, over time you will see the group begin to take on these new ways of communicating and the internal culture of the group will begin to improve.