Resolving team conflict… before things get crazy

I have recently been discussing a situation in which a team member refused to participate in a team practice. Rather than talking about what to do when this happens, I thought it more useful to consider ideas that may help to avoid situations like this altogether.

The daily stand-up meeting is a way for a team to plan its day. Done well, it can be very useful. Done badly it will be a total drag. In this case the individual concerned, let’s call him Bob, no longer wanted to participate in the daily stand-up. The reason that Bob gave was that he “simply want[ed] to be left alone to work”.

Bob’s unhappiness was an indication that something about adopting Scrum wasn’t working for him. However, his reason doesn’t actually tell us why he was unhappy. To illustrate, here are just a few possibilities…

  • Autonomy: I didn’t have any choice about the adoption of the team’s new working practices. These consultants come in and just start changing how we work like we know nothing. It just makes me feel powerless!
  • Efficacy: The stand-up isn’t useful to me or the team, it takes too long and doesn’t convey any information that wouldn’t have been found out through the course of the work. Just talking to each other when we needed to seemed to work okay didn’t it?
  • Dignity: For the last 10 years I’ve been implementing complex mathematical models for this company, and now my day is being decided by someone who attended a 2 day course and doesn’t understand my work!
  • Results: I am more productive working on my own and under enough pressure already. This is just slowing me down. If I keep being late home there will be hell to pay!
  • Safety: I feel like I am being judged on the number of things I say I have done and I get anxious trying to remember and talk about my work in front of the team. I really dread the stand-up!

I could keep going but you get the idea. Whatever Bob’s needs actually were, the strategy he chose for meeting them was non-participation. Unfortunately this strategy led quickly to conflict with his teammates who are trying to embrace the new working practices.

Without understanding Bob’s actual need, his teammates will inevitably make their own assessment as to why he is unhappy and behaving this way. As illustrated, human needs can be complex so these assessments are likely to be incorrect. They are also likely to be in the form of negative character judgements which will only exacerbate the situation e.g. that Bob is selfish, unreasonable, not a team player, doesn’t care about the work, can’t be bothered etc.

We see what we expect and miss what we don’t. The judgemental images we create of people distort our perception of everything they say and do, and are self reinforcing. Our judgements are expressed in the way we talk to each other. People become more defensive and round and around it goes, widening the gap between people until no-one is able to hear anyone’s needs.

So how might this situation have been avoided? Being able to identify Bob’s actual need creates some opportunities:

  1. It enables the team to meet Bob’s need to be heard. The account* states that “from time to time he would play up”. Playing up or ‘acting out’ is an indication of an unexpressed unmet need.
  2. Having been heard, Bob is more likely to be able to hear the needs of his teammates and their request for him to participate.
  3. Lastly and maybe most importantly, when the actual needs are known, the team may together be able find acceptable alternative strategies for meeting everyone’s needs.

Sadly it seems Bob wasn’t able to tell anyone what his needs were. This is unsurprising as most of us have difficulty in clearly identifying our needs, let alone expressing them. It isn’t something we are taught how to do and few people actively practice or develop this important life skill. Our society generally sees expressing needs as weakness, especially for men. And, few people it seems really understand how powerful being fully present with someone’s needs (i.e. empathy) can be in creating connection and resolving conflict.

Apparently, Bob left the team and the organisation soon afterwards. I can’t help wondering if the outcome might have been different if he had been able to express why he was actually unhappy. I believe that being able to support your teammates in hearing each other’s needs can help to resolve conflict before things get too out of hand. Of course, how you go about doing this is a whole other topic!

I’ll leave you with one of the most insightful talks on empathy I have found so far…

Paul Parkin – Reimaging empathy

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