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

Are our workplaces making us crazy?

Johann Hari’s article “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” has got me thinking. In challenging the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing he paints a bleak yet familiar picture of how our workplaces aren’t meeting our needs…

It turns out if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed – and, crucially, depressed. Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you can’t create meaning out of your work. (Hari, 2018)

According to Johann, 87% of people don’t like their work. Thats a awful lot of unhappy and disengaged people. For years now, I have advocated a way of working that I believe helps change what Johann describes as an “epidemic of meaningless work” e.g.

  • greater autonomy gives us more control over our work
  • an equal voice in our teams gives us a sense that we matter
  • teamwork creates connection between people
  • alignment with a wider mission adds to a sense of purpose

These changes have certainly made me feel a lot more positive about coming into work, and many of my colleagues feel the same. But in spite of all the benefits, it has been observed that the degree to which organisations are successful in adopting these practices can vary. The reasons for this and what to do about it are the subject of much discussion especially around culture, leadership and how these can change. Johann’s article suggests an underlying cause to people’s unhappiness at work…

In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances’”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”. (Hari, 2018)

We take if for granted, but almost all organisations are hierarchical. Unless you are at the very top of the pyramid, there is someone who has authority over you, the extent of which is determined by how much the organisation needs you and you need your job. How this plays out in our day to day experience of work depends greatly on how people exercise this power. Some people use their authority to coerce subordinates, whilst others find ways of doing the work that are mutually beneficial.

Dr Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and creator of Nonviolent Communication, contrasts to these strategies as “power-over” people as opposed to “power-with” people. He observes that…

Power-Over leads to punishment and violence. Power-With leads to compassion and understanding and to learning motivated by a reverence for life, rather than fear, guilt, shame and anger. (Rosenberg, M)

He posits that central to having “power-with” people is the belief that we are ultimately more likely to get our own needs met, if we first understand and consider the needs of others. Empathy is being present with someone to hear and understand their needs. It creates trust and connection between people. Self-empathy is being present with and connected to our own needs. It enables us to remain centred and helps us to achieve good outcomes for the whole.

For example, I may have a need for our work to be conducted in a sustainable way, and an idea about how this could be improved in our team. As a member of a self-organising team, I don’t have the authority to mandate that the team just try my idea. My colleagues almost certainly have a need for their views to be considered and to shape ideas before they are able to really give them a go. Self empathy enables me to understand that I also have a need to be recognised for ‘my’ idea, and to reconcile this with there being a better outcome for us all, if we collaborate and make it ‘our’ idea.

satya_nedalla-1024x768
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

All sound a bit too ‘warm and fuzzy’ for business? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella clearly doesn’t think so. One of his first actions was to give a copy of Marshal Rosenberg’s book to each of his execs in his efforts to address the “toxic culture” that he inherited from his predecessors. (Abadi, 2018)

The way of working I described earlier seems to flourish where those with power have confidence that, given clear objectives and support, people will deliver without having to be directed and controlled. There are practical considerations e.g. as well as knowing how to give people clear objectives and effective support, it also requires appropriate feedback loops that signal to engaged stakeholders that we are all moving in the right direction. But these can be all be worked out.

The opportunity, for those who can see the value, is to learn how to practice “power-with” people. Maybe this is the key to slowly dissolving hierarchies and creating working environments in which people’s mental wellbeing doesn’t suffer. Few people are fortunate enough to find their calling. Even if we do not all love our work, I hope that it is possible for it to be a positive, satisfying activity that goes beyond meeting our need to provide for ourselves and our families.

Summary

Most people are unhappy at work. The more we are controlled, the less our need for meaning is met. There is a way of working that better meets this need, by giving people greater autonomy, however the level of adoption varies. Maybe this variability is to do with how people with authority exercise power at work. Some use their “power-over” people to get things done. Some are able to develop “power-with” people to co-create mutually beneficial outcomes. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of developing “power-with” people. Maybe focussing on this could increase our success in transforming organisations into happier and more productive places.

 


Image and quotes Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

References:

Hari, Johann. (2018) Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?’, The Guardian, 7th January [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

Rosenberg, M. () ‘Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC Quotes’, PuddleDancer Press [Online]. Available at: https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/freeresources/nvc_social_media_quotes.htm

Abadi, M. (2018) ‘When CEO Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he started defusing its toxic culture by handing each of his execs a 15-year-old book by a psychologist’, Business Insider UK, 7th October [Online]. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/microsoft-satya-nadella-nonviolent-communication-2018-10