Drama, drama, drama…it happens to the best of us! What do you do when you have a conflict with your teams?
How about we let Katie Martin and Jeff Zoul answer this! Both have extensive experience in not only working with education peeps, but have led/managed groups of people, which inevitably? Could lead to conflict!
When I was growing up my dad used to “lock” my best friend and I in the car when we were fighting. We later realized that we were not actually locked in but it was more of a place for us to work it out where he didn’t have to hear it. Kind of genius, actually. To this day we are still great friends and have always been able to work through our issues. This has probably influenced how I tend to handle conflict. My tendency is to confront issues head on to resolve them and move on.
When there is conflict on our staff, whether it is people coming to me with problems or tensions that I notice, I try to acknowledge them and work with individuals to move forward rather than sweep it under the rug. I always talk with individuals to first try and encourage them to work it out together. But when that doesn’t work, I bring them together to facilitate some “crucial conversations.” Recently, I had two team members that were equally passionate but they had very different work styles and ways of approaching the problem and weren’t listening to one another. Instead, they took offense every time that one person did something differently than they would have. We focused on these 3 strategies to improve communication and better work together:
- Seek to Understand: Let’s be honest, when people are frustrated or there is conflict, most often it is because they feel misunderstood and/or undervalued. It is important to listen to one another, you don’t have to agree but we owe it to our colleagues to listen to them and ensure that people know they are heard and valued.
- Identify strengths: You don’t have to like everyone, but as professionals we are better if we work together, not against one another. If we focus on what is right with people rather than what is wrong, we can usually find a way to appreciate others and work together. When individuals are aware of what they are good at and leverage their strengths to do their best work, everyone benefits. To collaborate with others, one first must understand themselves and their own strengths and work to understand and leverage the talents of the group to do their best work.
- Find Common Goal– In education, our focus should always be on creating better opportunities and experiences for the learners we serve. With this as the common goal, we worked to figure out how to meet our shared goals. Conflict can be healthy and productive and is necessary to get better but it’s important to be tough on ideas, not on people.
Based on the steps above, we began by seeking to understand and found out that a lot of assumptions had been made about one another that had led to their challenging collaboration. Once each person understood where each was coming from, and felt valued, we discussed work preferences and one another’s strengths. At the end, they were both committed to doing great work and reaching their desired goal. Addressing the challenges and assumptions in the open allowed them to better communicate and they ended up being a very effective team once they figured out how to communicate and leverage each other’s strengths rather than take differences personally.
If that doesn’t work, try locking them in a car.
Anyone serving as a leader must, at times, deal with conflict among team members. All teams encounter conflicts at some point; in fact, I believe that high-performing teams engage in conflict every bit as much as weak teams. The difference lies not in the amount or intensity of conflict such disparate teams experience, the difference lies in the way such conflicts are addressed and resolved. Strong teams, with strong team leaders who embrace conflict as inevitable, view it as a way to grow stronger as a team and make decisions that are best for others in the organization the team serves. In our schools, the most important “others” to keep in mind during times of conflict are the students learning and growing in our schools.
When I am leading a team in conflict, I try to keep several things in mind. First, it is important to simply acknowledge the conflict and not pretend the conflict does not exist. Next, it is important to engage everyone involved in the conflict in conversation about the conflict, ensuring that all voices are heard without interrupting anyone who is speaking. As the leader of the team, it is best–at least initially–to do very little talking, instead focusing on active listening with perhaps follow-up questions of team members. We must establish expectations for the conflict resolution process and gain commitment to the process from all involved. Honestly, it is often the case that by simply taking the time to address the conflict openly and engaging affected members in a conversation about the conflict, the resolution almost takes care of itself, as team members gain a deeper understanding of their colleagues’’ perspectives. However, when team members still disagree about an issue, even after the issue is raised openly and discussed thoroughly, there must still be a resolution. Sometimes, the “resolution” can simply be that we agree to disagree privately but also agree to move forward publicly as a unified team, going in the direction of the team’s consensus.
The conflicts that arise among all teams are inevitable and wide-ranging in type and extent. No two conflicts are identical. Unfortunately, they can stem from emotions and personality differences. To resolve conflicts effectively, it is important, however, to take emotion and personality difference out of the equation and instead focus on how the conflict is impacting the team’s’ cohesiveness and productivity. Remind the affected parties of the team’s “Why?” Why do they exist as a team and what can they agree to collectively to turn the conflict into a positive–or at the very least, a neutral. In our schools, it is likely that the team exists–ultimately–to do what is best for kids and it is powerful to remind team members in times of conflict that we are here to serve our students.
How fortunate are we to learn from such greatness? Trying to balance all the emotions, all the times, can be such a struggle…I appreciate these perspectives SO much!
We have just ONE more questions in this series!