Director Rising Minds
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Team cohesion: building resilient teams that survive conflict

In the second of a two-part series on team cohesion, Tim Segaller, explores how to rebuild trust and goodwill in teams going through unsettling periods of change and conflict.

6th Apr 2020
Director Rising Minds
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illustration of a team linking arms
iStock/Andrew_Rybalko

In my first article I explored how teams can build that all-elusive ‘cohesion’ – so that the collective effort is greater than the sum of its parts. The fundamental condition to ensure this is an easy flow of communication and mutual understanding. This relies on every team member having a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to understand the emotional landscape of oneself and others.

The key here is about facing the situation head on, naming the problem, and developing a healthy acceptance of the inevitability of conflict in teams.

I set out two complementary approaches to train in these core skills – mindfulness-based awareness, and the co-active model of relationship and communication. Together these enable team members to understand, value and listen to each other – while also getting highly focused and pragmatic in order to get stuff done. These are the true building blocks for team cohesion.

All of the above is only true, however, if the team in question is already fairly functional in the first place, even if it’s not exactly flourishing. There needs to be a base line of togetherness and collaboration. So what happens when this foundational layer of functionality seems to be missing – when teams seem to be in freefall, meltdown or chronic team conflict? That’s what I’ll explore in this second article.

Managing conflicts

Every team is bound, at some point, to go through some highly unsettling periods. There are many potential triggers and factors at play. Obviously, these can be negative  – when a team suffers cuts, misses its targets, or there are big personality clashes. Conversely, there can also be ‘positive’ causes, such as when a team grows, or fresh blood is introduced. Anything that disturbs the status quo can cause ructions.

The key point is that, regardless of the nature of the trigger, teams can suffer at times of upheaval and change – when individual and collective needs and working styles clash head on. If so, it’s vital to rebuild trust and mutual goodwill, leading to healthy communication and working relationships.

Strong and healthy groups know that difference and disagreement can be valuable sources of creativity and innovation. 

So what are the best strategies for managing such conflicts? The key here is about facing the situation head on, naming the problem, and developing a healthy acceptance of the inevitability of conflict in teams.

This being so, here’s our four-step approach to building resilient teams that can survive turbulence.

Step 1: understanding everyone’s automatic responses to conflicts

A conflict is a clash between opposing beliefs or needs. Conflicts are unavoidable – particularly during periods of change – because people’s different needs and agendas are bound to rub up against each other’s. When exaggerated, these differences can lead to a vicious cycle of deeply ingrained stress responses: some may lash out, others withdraw or freeze – triggering responses in others, and so it goes on. In this cycle of attack/counter attack, it’s easy to lose sight of the real issues, along with genuine goodwill and common ground that exist in the group.

Questions for reflection: What’s your default response in a conflict? What about others in your team? How do these responses tend to interact? What about the team as a whole – what’s its general attitude towards conflict?

Step 2: engendering a conflict-friendly culture

The good news is that conflict doesn’t need to be feared or avoided. In fact, strong and healthy groups know that difference and disagreement can be valuable sources of creativity and innovation. When two or more people differ on a course of action, provided they can have a rational, honest discussion based on mutual understanding and respect, there’s a good chance they can co-create a new solution that takes on board multiple viewpoints.

The key to not only surviving conflict, but also growing and developing through it, is to create a safe space for people to explore difficult issues and express themselves fully.

Questions for reflection: How might you individually become more open to difference as an opportunity for positive change? If you’re a manager or leader, how could you engender this attitude more widely in your team/group?

Step 3: Establishing conflict and change processes

There are several strategies and practices you can implement to harness positive outcomes from disagreement:

  • Regular team meetings: allow sufficient time for a full range of views to be heard, including from those who tend to hold back, with the chairperson presenting back an objective summary. Take turns as the chairperson. Tools like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats can also ensure that the widest perspectives are included.
     
  • One-off meetings: if your team/group is going through significant change or conflict, it’s vital to give this space through dedicated meetings. It can be invaluable to bring in an impartial facilitator to chair these meetings.
     
  • Skills training: embracing disagreement depends on all the group’s members’ ability to listen and express themselves effectively and respectfully. Training in core coaching and communication skills can provide this.
     
  • Conflict policy and processes: if clashes between individuals or sub-groups become very severe or disruptive, it’s essential to have a well-publicised policy for dealing with them. The most appropriate processes will depend on the nature and size of your team/organisation, but at their core they should create clear steps whereby all parties can present their views in a safe space facilitated by a neutral person, often a professional mediator.

Questions for reflection: Do your team meetings allow everyone’s views to be heard? How skilled are your team’s members at listening and communicating? What systems are in place to deal with severe disagreement?

Step 4: Review and share learning

When your team’s been through a process of conflict or change, make sure you fully acknowledge it. Set up simple reviews, through individual and group meetings, that capture the full spectrum of views, agreed actions, and collective learning. Then make these findings easily accessible through clear, summary reports.

Questions for reflection: Thinking of a recent example of conflict or change in your team, how clear was the communication about any resulting actions, learning or changes?

The key to not only surviving conflict, but also growing and developing through it, is to create a safe space for people to explore difficult issues and express themselves fully. In practice, this is best done through a mix of one-to-one and group processes – ensuring that equal attention is paid both to individual creativity and autonomy, and the purpose and agenda of the whole team and organisation.

Interested in this topic? Read Team synergy: combining personalities for success.

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