Conflicts are an inevitable part of team dynamics, they occur in every human relationship we engage in. The ability to recognize the conflicts, and to address them constructively can make the difference between high and low-performing teams, between good and bad working environments, between loyalty and disloyalty to the team’s goals. The process starts with understanding the conflicts and their backgrounds.
How does this relate to be a trainer?
When working as a trainer you constantly work in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment. Under the influence of the conflict, your work will change and this can trigger a lot of emotions and it can lead to unexpected decisions or deviations from the initially set process. In teams of trainers, the level of collaboration determines success greatly, and you need to be able to constructively come to terms with your colleagues.
Also, during training, conflict is always present in groups, it can literally occur in a minute. It is an essential skill to be aware of and acknowledge the conflict, understand the nature of conflicts, and to guide people through it in a professional way.
Let’s say your team is working on a very important project, where there is a tight deadline, the stakes are high, the tasks are complex which requires resourcefulness and creativity, and the team must join forces to deliver the best possible outcome. This is exactly the worst timing for a conflict between colleagues – which is highly likely in such a situation. It is likely for the conflict to happen because conflicts thrive in a high-pressure environment with high stakes – especially if things are not going well. The common wisdom that having conflicts are normal doesn’t seem comforting if we don’t know why they are happening, and what we should do in order to solve them. The goal is to use the energy from the conflict to work for us, and therefore to become an even stronger team.
Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence are two traits that are a must-have when managing teams, and they go hand in hand. An emotionally and socially intelligent leader according to Daniel Goleman:
- Is self-aware and manages him/herself well
- Is socially aware and manages his/her relationships well.
Here are a few interesting reads from Goleman on how to develop their abilities.
It is important to see that one can only manage emotions and conflicts if he/she is aware of them. And that starts with self-reflection and empathy, understanding that there is something to deal with. Yet even if understanding is a crucial first step, the ability to manage conflicts needs more knowledge about their nature, when they occur and why.
Types of conflict
Apart from placing conflicts on a time and development scale (like stages of team development), to understand them in-depth, one should know the root causes behind them. According to Bell (2002) and Hart (2009), there are 8 main types of conflict, and each should be dealt with differently.
- Conflicting Needs / Resources
When we have different needs in the same space or project (one colleague likes to work at 26 °C, and the other one is boiling above 21 °C), or we need the exact same resource and only one of us can have it (there are 30 minutes for two trainers to equally wrap up the whole day, where one uses 25 minutes of the time to explain his point) – there is a conflict of needs.
- Conflicting Styles
Every person has their own unique personality – different things fire them up and put them off. They approach people and problems differently, and in order to cooperate successfully, they need to understand their own styles and preferences first, then learn about how others work. Some want to have their work structured and organized, while others want the freedom of things going spontaneously, with improvising and not really defined. It is ok to work together and to agree to disagree and avoid each other, but when you put pressure, stress, not achieving the goals and lack of time in the equation, suddenly those small differences become highly important and often very conflicting. Personality tests or behavior style tests like Myers-Briggs (MBTI) or DISC are great tools for this process to learn the different styles and personalities in your team.
- Conflicting Perceptions
People perceive things and happenings differently – a close deadline can be motivating for someone and huge stress for someone else. One can view a new colleague as help with the workload, someone else might feel rivalry. It is crucial to keep an open mind and identify these conflicting perceptions and have patience, empathy and motivation to understand how others might see things differently than we do.
Transparency within the team, open discussions and an open invitation for having different perceptions, will prevent hidden perceptions and will increase the understanding and knowledge of one another in your team.
- Conflicting Goals
It can be a big source of conflict if the common goals are not set at the very beginning of teamwork. If there is a common ground, to begin with, then it is easily discussed whether a sub-decision is aligning to the overall aim or not. And the situation is much simpler when we are talking about organizational or job-related goals where we can agree for the sake of our team to accept common goals.
It gets more complicated when our personal goals get interconnected with the professional ones – one can be high on energy and desire to learn, wanting to push their own personal limitations which will make the course more intense, when on the other side there is a trainer who recently experienced occupational burn out from another kind of intense experiences and wants a more calm and slow-paced environment.
- Conflicting Pressures
During a common project, team members depend on each other, and this can cause friction – especially if they are racing against the same deadline or trying to stay within the same budget while having different responsibilities.
This also links back to different styles, as pressure makes people react differently in different situations – some people experience immense stress when placed against short and difficult to achieve deadlines, other people focus and operate quite well in that kind of environment. Some people welcome diversity in opinions and approaches, some dislike that and thrive when keeping to common approaches. Some people find it easy or enjoyable to get out of their comfort zones, some people feel very uncomfortable and experience too much fear outside the zone. Some people like getting directions and instructions, some people don’t like being told what to do and how.
Different kinds of conflicting pressure can be a reason for conflicts – pressure from a deadline and having lack of time and pressure to get the application successful this time, the pressure of quality of work when not all resources needed are available and the pressure of lack of finances or increased costs, the pressure of the unpredictable future in a pandemic and pressure of providing sustainable future, in terms of salaries and projects.
Do not underestimate the pressures that arise between the workplace and one’s private life. The pressure of spending more time with the family vs the pressure of the survival of your organization. The pressure of taking care of your health vs the pressure of resolving the crisis at work. The pressure of building a house at home and not lagging at work.
- Conflicting Roles
This kind of conflict can occur when someone is asked to deal with issues outside of their role and responsibility; when they try to deal with something themselves which is out of their role and responsibility; or if these scopes are not communicated clearly from the start. This can happen when people push responsibilities to others who don’t want it, or when people make decisions in the name of others or the whole team.
An example: you are the main responsible for the program implementation, and on your team, there is a fellow trainer who is a senior professional and much more experienced than you. She/he feels that they can do changes to the program without consulting the team, which might create immediate conflicts. On another occasion, a responsibility that is not in anybody’s role or job description and no one wants, can be pushed to the other until a conflict emerges. These kind of conflicts might be small and meaningless on their own, but they can pile up and make things to quickly spiral out in an undesired direction.
Recognizing such conflicts on time and addressing them, would keep the good working relationships in the team.
- Different Personal Values
Values are at the core of who we are. We believe in and treasure different things. The ultimate way to get over these issues (as most often they cannot be solved) is to learn to accept diversity in the workplace.
That might not be easy, as having different values can lead to very heated conflicts in some cases. One trainer coming from a business and an academic background has one set of values and beliefs, and another trainer coming from a more spiritual, psychological background could have other ones. One trainer might be an advocate for personal growth, freedom and reaching to the highest potential through taking every opportunity, the second emphasizes loyalty to the community, the environment, and striving for simplicity and slowing down. One could value commitment, the other could value open-mindedness. They could dislike the values of the other side.
Decision making is often based on our values. Understanding the values of your teammates will help you understand their decision-making process, and also foresee and prevent potential conflicts.
- Unpredictable Policies
Constantly changing environments, expectations and rules create uncertainty, tension, fear, and this is a perfect ground for conflicts. Teams need to know and understand rules and policies in order to function optimally. If there is no consistency, there is no point of reference according to which the teams are going to synchronize.
How do we make major decisions and how do we implement them, even if some people disagree with them? Do we stick together as a team, or everyone can do as they wish? What is our policy about being present at each other’s workshops – do we attend them to be up to date with the whole content, or we attend only the workshops that we are responsible for or where our help is needed, and the rest of the time we could chill outside or do other work?
Policies and rules of engagement have to be clear to all team members since the very beginning. Changes in those policies, which happen often, have to be made transparent, so the team members can adjust their expectations and synchronize with them.
Besides understanding why conflicts occur, it is important to know in what way to deal with them. Here are some ideas on what to look out for:
- Address the problem, not the people.
- Talk in “I” statements – share your opinion and your feelings without labeling.
- Draw the people in the conversation – be willing to listen first and make the communication a partnership.
- Focus on the solution – “problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions” (Steve de Shazer).
- Be specific – avoid words like “always” and “never”.
- Be aware that different people have different needs – some can talk about a problem straight away, some need processing time on their own.
- Identify which types of conflicts are you personally mostly getting influenced by. Talk with your team and identify what types of conflicts do you have. How can you overcome those conflicts?
- Think about moments when you had conflicts with other people and classify those conflicts in the categories. Why do you think that happened?
- Identify the reasons for the conflicts between your friends, colleagues, or family. Talk with them about the differences in styles or perceptions and get their feedback to create a better understanding of the conflict. How can you avoid those conflicts?
- Talk with your team about the recent conflicts that you had. Try to evaluate and identify what were the deeper causes of the conflicts and to hear everyone’s perceptions on it, and find what would have been a better way to deal with it, for future reference.
What makes you more prone to conflicts – what do you respond poorly to? What triggers you personally? (It can be hunger, lack of sleep, other people’s behaviors, unpredictability, etc.)
What alternative behaviors/habits do you respond well to?
Challenge your assumptions and be aware of your values – What do you believe to be true about what people need? How does this determine the way you manage conflicts in a team?
How aware is your team of the conflicts you might have? Do you think your performance or job satisfaction would benefit from a better understanding of your differences?
What was one time you dealt with a conflict very well? How did you do that, why did it work?
What was one time you dealt with a conflict very bad? What did you do, why didn’t it work?
An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. ― Mahatma Gandhi