Overcoming Team Tension
We had such great feedback from our summer articles from our partners that I have decided to continue to feature various articles from my partners as well as my own submissions… enjoy
OVERCOMING TEAM TENSION
By Mark Ellwood
You’re working on a big project. Deadlines are approaching. Major work needs to be done. Numerous team members are involved. The goal is clear. At the beginning of the project, things go smoothly.
But then trouble sets in. It starts out as a minor difference of opinion between team members. Then, there’s a stall in progress. Heels are dug in. Positions become more firm. Arguments ensue and no one is happy. Nothing gets done. It’s a case of team tension.
People work on teams because collaboration allows productive activity to flourish. One person doesn’t have all the skills, resources, or knowledge to get everything done. So teams form to foster synergy. The theory is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals can make progress, whereas teams can make magic.
But difficulties can arise because not everyone sees a project the same way. Team members bring different experiences, training, and points of view to their work. Sometimes, these clash. The result is team tension.
Recognize the symptoms
You’ll experience team tension when you encounter the following symptoms:
- Team members repeat points over and over to each other, but no one seems to be adding any new information that hasn’t already been covered numerous times. Discussions become more heated. Arguments ensue.
- You suggest options that are routinely rejected.
- Individuals begin implementing one part of a decision they’ve made, without informing other team members. This is progress by stealth.
- You worry that there is an overwhelming issue no one has addressed, and that must be dealt with sooner or later. Perhaps you feel too intimidated to bring it up.
- Someone threatens to quit. This may not be an obvious threat – the hints may be subtle. For instance, you realize that people aren’t pulling their weight, and progress becomes slack. Or someone leaves a discussion, with no agreement or decision being made.
- Team members use documentation to cover themselves. They write down what they agreed to, or what you did, or what they expect. Documentation is a useful tool, but not when it masks unresolved differences.
- Someone appeals to a higher authority to resolve the dispute. Or they suggest a vote. But bosses don’t like to take sides, and voting creates winners and losers rather than consensus.
So, what are some practical ways to manage team tension? The first is to simply acknowledge that it exists. This can take some bravery. In the middle of a meeting, or in a one-on-one conversation, make a declaration: “We seem to be at an impasse here. I’m sensing some tension about our differences. I wonder if we could…” Then fill in the rest of the sentence with one of the suggestions below.
TAKE A BREAK
Allow the situation to rest for a while. Sleep on it. Go for a walk. Think it over during the weekend. Share your thoughts with colleagues outside the team. If there has been a long build-up to a disagreement, it may not get resolved quickly. Be patient.
INVOLVE A MEDIATOR
Consider asking an objective outsider to help resolve differences. When you do, be sure to present both sides thoroughly. Then, listen for what your advisor has to offer. Avoid saying, “Yeah, you’re right.” This often means you’ve heard what is being said, but you don’t really get it and you plan to do nothing. A trained mediator can also help, but only if both parties agree.
DECIDE ON WHAT REALLY COUNTS
Consider what you are really attached to. What are your motivations for pursuing a course of action? Perhaps what you think is of paramount importance is not really essential to the project. Focus on what makes a difference, and let the rest go. The consequences will probably be minimal.
Do you really understand the other person’s point of view? Practice active listening. This means hearing their comments in full, rather than composing your own response as they speak. Then, repeat back your understanding of what the other person said. Check with her to see if you got it right. Sometimes your empathy will encourage her to tell you more, uncovering additional clues about how to deal with her issues.
Offer to concede a point or meet in the middle. You’ll be surprised at how accommodating the other person can be when you “blink first.” Don’t think of it as backing down. Think of it as creating an opening towards a productive next step.
KEEP THE OJBECTIVE IN MIND.
In a meeting, remind everyone what the objective is. Ensure they all agree. Then help them visualize a picture of success. When people realize they are all working towards the same purpose, they become less entrenched in their own positions.
LIST WHAT YOU AGREE ON
This technique can work for two people or for a large group. List the subject at the top of a piece of paper. Then write down everything you agree on. Anyone in the discussion gets a veto – if they don’t agree on something, it doesn’t get written down. Listing a series of agreements focuses people’s attention on core values and common steps. And, when people discover items they agree on, a positive energy emerges that spurs further cooperation.
Humility can go a long way to opening up conversations. Apologize for being bullish, getting upset, making accusations, or even for not understanding the objective properly. Then, use one of the other techniques to find a genuine path towards team commitment.
Remember that team tension is natural. If your team consists of a variety of strong individuals, disagreements will naturally occur. If they don’t, your team may have too many conformists who are unwilling to challenge the status quo. Strive to keep the differences minor, and not long-lasting. What you should hope for is a situation where team members say, “We often disagree with each other, but we can always go out for a beer afterwards.”
It isn’t easy admitting that team tension exists. By breaking the ice, you allow others to admit that there is tension. Only then can you move towards a better solution. Eventually, someone on the team will thank you for being so forthright.
And remember to keep the perspective of time in mind. Minor differences today will eventually form the histories, the stories, and the anecdotes that you will look back on as the team celebrates its successes.