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"The role of the leader is to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change… Companies tend to be allergic to conflict… Being averse to conflict is understandable. Conflict is dangerous: it can damage relationships. It can threaten friendships. But conflict is the primary engine of creativity and innovation. People don't learn by staring into a mirror; people learn by encountering difference. So hand in hand with the courage to face reality comes the courage to surface and orchestrate conflicts, the stomach for conflict, and uncertainty-among their people and within themselves." Ronald Heifetz, Professor in Leadership Education at Harvard University

    Team Intervention

The facilitators at Workplace Connections have the stomach for conflict - all kinds - from intense and hot, to cool and polite. Our studies have shown that even though the majority of organizational cultures are conflict-avoidant, the costs of conflict are still high. We have the sensitivity, experience, skills and background to know how to work well with those who don't yet have the stomach for conflict.

Whether the conflict in your organization manifests itself in large or small ways, intensely or not, we support you as you develop the capacity to recognize and manage it. We work with you to surface the issues involved in your conflicts, assess the impact of those issues on your business, intervene in a manner appropriate to your organization's culture, and stay around for any "clean-up". We also facilitate relationship repair through mediation with those on the team who have a history of low trust or unresolved conflicts.

We help teams face challenging realities: external, organizational, and internal, by creating an environment where conflict can surface with the least amount of pain and damage, and the most amount of learning, stimulating the desire to move forward. While this work can feel risky, from the stories we hear and the results we have seen, we know it is riskier to the productivity of the team NOT to deal with conflict.

Our results have been remarkable. We have worked with high-tech teams of senior managers who hardly spoke with each other without yelling. We have worked with teams of mid-level contributors who would not speak with each other at all. We have seen manufacturing environments where teams endangered each other and their leads due to years of pent up frustration and rage. We have heard many variations on why problems are the fault of the other team. In each case, after experiencing our team intervention process, these teams are higher functioning and more productive.

In case you can't relate to the situations above, thinking, "Our company doesn't act out that way. We treat each other respectfully," here are some examples you might relate to:

  • At one large, established company several people approached our consultant over a three-day training period. Each employee, who appeared focused, committed and not at all what some would label a "problem," said they took the conflict resolution training program as a last ditch effort because they were thinking of suing the company. In all three cases, these employees had coworkers who were not speaking to them. The managers and HR department in this traditional organization are conflict avoidant; the employees believe their only option for dealing with their discomfort is litigation!
  • At a high tech company, where we interviewed a team of senior managers, everyone told our consultant that there was one person on the team who was quiet, dependable and didn't seem to be affected by the conflict in the company. When we interviewed that executive, he told us he was so frustrated he was job hunting. He had managed to stay out of the fray and appeared to be "fine", but he was quietly plotting his exit strategy.

These examples are not unusual, and while often hidden, the cost in lost time and productivity can be quite high. Like debugging a computer program, editing technical documents, designing a new product or most any other business function, working through a healthy conflict resolution process takes time. But with guidance and practice, teams learn to talk about their changing and challenging reality without alienating each other. We have not seen a team go through this process that didn't think it paid for itself in renewed vigor and productivity.

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Phase 1: Discovery

We meet with the key stakeholder(s) to discuss how they perceive the issues the team is facing, including what the obstacles are to high team functioning. We also interview each person on the team, and anyone else the client recommends who works closely with this team, so we may gain a deep understanding of the issues (e.g. are the conflicts structural? interpersonal? a result of unaligned goals? a result of unskillful conversations? all of the above?).

Phase 2: Feedback and Discussion / Real -Time Coaching

When all the data has been collected, assessed and consolidated, we bring the team together for a feedback and dialogue meeting. At this meeting, we present what we heard about "what is working and what is not around here." There is generally a palpable feeling of relief in the group as the issues are named in a safe environment. The discussion that ensues depends on the depth of the issues. Some groups acknowledge that they were heard and are ready to move forward. Most groups need to discuss the issues in greater depth. It is during this meeting that our facilitator witnesses, for the first time, how the team functions as the team discusses what is difficult and sensitive. If anyone exhibits any alienating behaviors, our facilitators intervene with appropriate, real-time coaching. It is this real-time coaching that differentiates these meetings from others that are similar. Clients say that they learn the most from this type of session. We get continual feedback that they "feel as safe as anyone could possibly feel during this type of session."

If anyone in particular is named as being "difficult" during the interview phase, our facilitator meets with that person, and sometimes the manager, prior to the team meeting. It is our goal that everyone feels supported and is helped to see where they can improve. We work very hard so that no one feels blindsided or attacked during the feedback process.

Phase 3: Individual Follow Up

Sometimes our discovery uncovers pockets of dysfunction on a team. Occasionally there is one person who has disputes with multiple people. Sometimes there is just a pair who have relationship issues that affect the team's functioning. Part of our follow-up is to conduct two or three person mediations, if necessary, so that team functioning is not hampered by these relationship breakdowns.

Phase 4: Conflict Resolution/Skills Training

We next train the entire team in managing difficult conversations skills so that they may move forward using the energy of their differences to enhance the team's performance. This training may proceed, or be followed by, another team meeting to test and support their new behaviors.

Next Steps

As with the preceding phases, what comes next largely depends on the needs of the team. We have worked with teams that need very little follow-up, and with others where ongoing coaching is required for the manager and/or some team members. As with all phases of this work, we partner with our clients to ensure that the organization's needs and culture are respected at all times. We are sensitive to organizational politics, while also supporting our client's need to make courageous, reality based choices. During this phase, we work on an as-needed basis, or on retainer, whichever makes the most financial sense for our client.

All Rights Reserved (C) Workplace Connections 2009  Web Design by Brenda Cornett
Flower and nature photography courtesy Mark Hussein (C) 2009   www.markhusseinphotography.com