© Mathias Maul

First Aid: Some Principles and Actions for Resolving Team Conflicts

Productivity, communication and emotions are different facets of the same thing. Resolving emotional issues with individual team members and within the team as a whole is the most sustainable way to effect positive change.

This article was originally published in Business Punk 2023-02-08.

Recently, a Scrum team hired me to tackle their productivity issues. They had manoeuvred themselves into what seemed like a dead end: their meetings consisted of either heated arguments or unbearable silence, both leading, unsurprisingly, to no progress at all. None of them was able to reconstruct how this had unfolded, especially since they got along rather well during their daily work.

After debugging communication patterns among them, and peeking into some of the individuals’ thought processes, things began looking up: We could pinpoint the mechanics behind their stalemate, and after a successful test run with me joining as a quiet observer, they declared their issues resolved.

While I cannot disclose the specifics of this particular project, I can share some general principles, concrete actions, and useful mindsets for resolving team conflicts. All of what follows in this article has proven effective in my work. I do hope that it’ll help you in resolving team conflicts, whether you’re a team lead, team member, or an executive herding (or wrangling) multiple teams at once.

1. Embrace the Feels

Is your team stumbling and fumbling? Tensions rising, fingers pointing, and guilt trips getting booked left and right? Oh, okay, brush it off, dry those eyes, it’s only human, let’s march back to the whiteboard as if nothing happened. Wait, what? Stop, please. The “it’s just human nature” excuse is inexcusable, and it completely undermines the very foundation of any team: its people.

The golden rule for resolving team conflicts is to simply (ha!) remember that every one of you is a human being. Put the emotions on the table. No one will perish from anger, stress, fear, guilt, or shame. Emotions are universal, and everyone on the team can relate – or learn to empathize – with a teammate’s distress. Most of the issues in teamwork arise from communication issues, which in turn originate in emotional imbalances within or between people. Realize that truly valuing being human as the indisputable cornerstone of a team and its success is the foundation of understanding and solving even the most hidden issues.

2. He Said, She Said, Nuff Said

The “he said, she said” game is a time-honoured tradition in romantic relationships on the brink of their expiration date. The rules are simple: Partners take turns nitpicking about who said what, when, and why—only to discover that, not at all surprisingly, somehow the intention got skewed along the way. Then, emotions from the past bubble up, including those from previous relationships with other partners (or, worse, parents), which further aggravates … well, you know how it goes.

In both romantic relationships and teams (where’s the difference?), except when it comes to criminal activities, forget the question of who is “right” or who is “wrong” or, worse, “to blame.” Focus on the issue at hand, like, you know, right now. You can address the past once the present is back on track. Moreover, the more effectively you resolve your issues, the less significant the past becomes. This has held true in countless therapy and coaching sessions, and I’m confident you can do it too. The future is just as much an illusion as the past, so stay present—in the end, the present is all you’ve got anyway.

3. Understanding Understanding

A significant number of conflicts I’ve encountered in my work stem from confusing facts with assumptions, and vice versa: It’s natural – and useful! – to make assumptions to interpret the real meaning behind what someone said or wrote. Our brains are wired to extract meaning from minimal information, taking mental shortcuts to save time and energy. After all, organisms thrive on efficient resource utilization: You wouldn’t want your brain to waste a milligram of glucose to create new assumptions when it can just pull one from the library. Often, our assumptions prove correct, especially when we’ve known someone for some time. When they turn out to be misguided, however, the consequences can be severe, and the severity is proportional to how sure we’ve felt about the assumption.

Countless books and articles deal with the topic of understanding. Here’s the gist: If the person you’re talking to suddenly exhibits a strong emotion such as anger, they might not yet have consciously realized that they’re being misunderstood. What next? Easy. Repeat what you think you understood, and ask for clarification. This will help you to understand the other person as they intended, not as you want it to be. Be observant, and if you receive the slightest signal that your assumptions might be misaligned with the other’s intentions, seek clarification. Importantly, approach the clarification with genuine interest, curiosity, and goodwill … and allow others to do the same to, no: with you.

4. Emotional Autonomy

Our brains are spectacular at predicting and creating emotions. Oh, of course we create them ourselves—who else would? We compare what we experience with our memories and create feelings, which we then tend to fill with meaning. Thus, a phrase like “This/he/she is triggering me!” is not helpful at best and plain logically wrong at worst, simply because the buttons that others seem to push reside in ourselves. It’s always us pushing our own buttons.

Rewiring our buttons can help, both with us individually and when communicating with team members whom we hallucinate to push our buttons. This is not always an easy task, as we’ve spent years or decades building those buttons and wires inside ourselves. Tackling this task in earnest, however, is always more honest and sustainable than projecting blame onto others when we feel uneasy due to their actions.

Emotional autonomy means acknowledging that our emotions are just that: our own. So, identify those buttons, switch on your internal headlamp, trace the wires, and find new configurations. Seek the help of your teammates in mutual debugging sessions, or find someone external to guide you. Or do it yourself, taking care to document your progress so that you can always refer to the release notes of each version of your personality. Gradually, you’ll be able to interact with yourself and, in consequence, others in a new, more relaxed manner, resolving conflicts at their roots before they have a chance to sprout.

5. Ready, Set, Hold Up: Lace Up First!

Before the entire team can sprint, everyone needs to know how to tie their shoelaces. When a team is not “running” smoothly, it’s often because not everyone has fully grokked what, ya know, what this is all about. Finding meaning in work is a powerful motivator, but I’ve never met anyone in more than 20 years of consulting who created motivation from reciting board-approved mission statements.

Here’s an example of an effective approach: In every briefing, include a few sentences explaining why the requested task is important, which purpose it serves for whom, and what’s in it for the team or person the briefing is assigned to. Typically, all of this can fit in two or three sentences. Create meaning and understanding, and you’ll empower your people to create motivation, which in turn encourages self-organization and reduces conflicts.

How can you determine if something has been understood? As mentioned earlier: ask. And listen. Openly and honestly. This will require extra effort at times, but consider it a 100% worthwhile investment: by running for an hour each day, you create three more hours of focused work time for yourself. By prioritizing meaning, you eliminate the need for constant troubleshooting.

So … what?

This sounds all well and good, Matt, you might say as the team lead, but …where to start? Without knowing your specific situation, problems, or challenges, here’s my go-to answer for this common question: Post this text on your Slack channel or mailing list, along with the following suggestion: “Hey team, have a look at this article. When you’re experiencing a team communication issue, throw a die and do only what this text says in the part corresponding to the throw. And if you throw a 6, get some sushi for the team, and I’ll join you to talk it over.” Because, you know, not taking your self [sic] too seriously while having a dead-serious approach to getting your work done, … this also might just do the trick.