Conflict is quite normal and to be expected in a team. A team that doesn’t experience any conflict is probably not working as a team at all.
To spot hidden conflict, watch out for these warning signs:
Too much harmony over a prolonged period of time
This could be symptomatic of an avoidance to voice concerns in the room, especially if it’s about you the team leader or a dominant person in the team.
In one professional rugby team I worked with a few years back, there was quietness in the team. The coach did all the talking and the players were frightened to speak up if they had a different view point. The coach saw this as togetherness. When the team were asked for their true feelings about being part of the team, what appeared to be harmonious was actually more like avoidance of voicing their true feelings.
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To tackle avoidance, leaders have to ask more questions than give opinions, invite ideas rather than shout instructions or request feedback to their ideas rather than drill home the same statements.
The team leader who is in tell mode rather than listening mode will see more conflict.
Moaning in private about others to the team leader rather than to others directly
This tells us the team doesn’t feel safe enough to address each other, but are relying on others, usually the team leader, to rescue them, a sure sign there is insufficient psychological safety in the team.
I worked at Southampton FC when Glenn Hoddle was manager back in 2000/2001. He was so technically gifted the players were intimidated by him so as is the case in so many football teams, the feedback was only one way – from Hoddle to the team. When they were fed up, the players used to moan about him among themselves but never directly to him.
To build psychological safety, coaches have to be more comfortable being imperfect. I encouraged Glen to open up a bit more on where he wasn’t so strong as manager.
This in turn helped the team speak up. Also get the team to practice giving each other feedback, both appreciative and also more challenging. But make the ratio roughly three to one in favour of appreciations. Research consistently shows that this ratio maximises receptivity, learning and team performance.
Watch out for them. Sub-teaming is fine but not if they are formed on the closeness of relationships rather than by the goals that have to be achieved.
Cliques result in feelings of exclusion and ultimately shared goals are less likely to be achieved. The England male football teams have suffered from club cliques for years.
Under Southgate the norm of sitting with your club mates at meals has been killed off. When Martyn Johnson took the England Rugby team to the World Cup Final in New Zealand, cliques also cost the team a sense of team identity and cohesiveness. Being the ‘in-crowd’ was ultimately catastrophic for the team as a whole.
To avoid conflict from cliques, set out ground rules for togetherness and discuss as a whole team how to reduce it from happening and what to do when it does happen. Regular whole team discussions on how the team is behaving will help you do this.
George Karseras is founder and CEO of Team Up and author of Build Better Teams: creating winning teams in the digital age