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How to Deal with Team Conflict

Learning how to deal with team conflict is a challenge all leaders face. Part of the solution is ensuring there is sufficient psychological safety in place in your team. In recent years, team psychological safety has emerged as a popular topic of discussion among academics and practitioners alike. This interest is due largely in part to its emergence as an important factor in workplace performance. In fact, Google ranked team psychological safety as the top requirement for successful teams.

Harvard organizational behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety as “the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and has been instrumental in understanding how this happens through her research.

The theory goes that when we feel psychologically safe with each other, we take more risks, we’re more innovative, we try new things—and we create better results.

How to deal with team conflict by building the questioning muscle of your team

Imagine a team that is willing to take risks, admit and learn from mistakes, and engage in productive conflicts without fear of repercussion or negative judgment from their peers. A team where teammates feel safe when asking questions or challenging each other’s ideas without anxiety or feeling judged by others.  There’s real power in harnessing the collective intelligence of your team.

Sounds great – and why wouldn’t we want that for our teams? – but there is often a gap between aspiration and execution.  If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably found that it can be challenging to create a space where people are comfortable enough to be vulnerable, ask questions, and challenge—even when its intent is constructive. You may be asking yourself: how do I get people to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and share ideas?

It may be that the broader culture and conditions in your team and organisation make people reluctant to speak up and engage. People fear repercussions if they speak out or challenge or feel their ideas won’t be listened to or valued. So, they keep their heads down and their great ideas to themselves.  We’ve also encountered examples where questions have been weaponised and used to score passive-aggressive points. If this is the case in your organisation then there’s deeper work that needs to be done to understand the root causes and start to build a healthier and more constructive context.

Or, more positively, it could be that challenging and asking questions is just isn’t something that is done in your organisation.  Not everyone questions as a natural part of their workflow. In fact, some people don’t question at all!

Some people are less comfortable speaking up in certain situations fearing their contribution might cause conflict or embarrassment.  Or you may be working with individuals who have learned this pattern of keeping quiet as a result of their own prior workplace experiences. They may hold beliefs that you don’t ask questions of someone more senior than you or that you should only involve yourself in topics directly related to your own functional role.  Or they fear they will appear negative if they ask a question or that don’t know enough to question.

This can lead to a situation where all voices are silenced to the detriment of the organisation. Generating psychological safety is challenging work, but it’s not impossible! When teams are learning how to deal with team conflict, one tool we use to build the questioning muscle of teams is the Team Question Bank.  It sounds simple but it is actually rocket science.

Shot of a rocket prior to launch

In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch. In the immediate aftermath, seven astronauts died.  It sent shockwaves through NASA and the world. The Rogers Commission interviewed engineers and decision-makers to identify what went wrong and they uncovered a remarkable lack of communication resulting in incomplete and misleading information reaching NASA’s top tiers.

As part of the wide-ranging remedial measures NASA adopted a standard set of questions that colleagues should ask each other when a decision is being made to ensure that assumptions and concerns didn’t go unchecked (Grant, 2021). Every employee was encouraged to ask the following questions regardless of their level in the hierarchy:

  • What leads you to that assumption?
  • Why do you think that is correct?
  • What might happen if that is wrong?
  • What are the uncertainties in your analysis?
  • I understand the advantages in your recommendation – what are the disadvantages?
  • How do you know?

We work with teams to help them build their own Team Question Bank together. This exercise on its own is always fascinating.  It helps the team surface their priorities and debate what matters most.  The whole point is for this question set to become a shared language that helps the team work through things together. It gives everyone permission to challenge ideas and make sure the optimal decisions are made. It turns dysfunctional team conflict into productive team conflict.

When you are close to a project its easy to miss an angle or forget a detail because you’re so excited about an idea that your mind is racing forward.  The question bank can help keep this in check.

It also means that everyone knows that they can expect similar questions when they’re working on something big so can prepare for them.  Equally people who are a bit reluctant to ask questions know that it is ok – and in fact expected of them – to ask those questions of their colleagues.  It feels less personal and requires less interpersonal risk to speak up.  It also gives everyone a sense of ownership and ensures that no one feels singled out for asking certain questions.

We recommend teams start with a small set of questions and evolve them overtime.  As the team gets used to asking questions of each other and it becomes embedded as a way of working we see psychological safety build and teams expand the range of questions they are willing to ask.

Some of the common questions that make it into Team Question Banks  are:

  • What impact will this have on our customers?
  • How will this affect our people?
  • How much time/ effort will this consume?
  • What are we assuming that might not be true?
  • How will this impact on the work of other teams?

To help us (and you) up our questioning game, we came up with a step-by-step guide to running your own Team Question Bank exercise and some thought-starter questions.  Just visit our website here to download your copy.

We can also help you learn how to deal with team conflict through our interactive, engaging team workshops and tools that help your team members get to know each other better. Just get in touch to talk through how we can help you.

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