Every organization—corporate, nonprofit, religious, recreational, etc.—no matter how large or small, will have problems with clients, vendors, and staff at some point. The trick of every organization is to anticipate and preempt problems to the greatest extent possible. The key to preemption is communication.

The Harvard Business Review and CEO.com tackle the topic of using communication to forestall unproductive conflict in teams. Conflict does not mean that every team member must think alike and agree upon everything. Resolution of unproductive conflict does not require the absence of dissent or disagreeing opinions. Writers Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux state in their article “How to Preempt Team Conflict” that “Good conflict fosters respectful debate and yields mutually agreed-upon solutions that are often far superior to those first offered. Bad conflict occurs when team members simply can’t get past their differences, killing productivity and stifling innovation.”

The newsletter Accelerating IT Success agrees with Toegel and Barsoux in that “[a] little conflict can produce great, innovative results, but bad conflict can result in all-out anarchy.” The preventative medicine to ward off conflict is, once again, communication.

The consensus that effective communication works best to anticipate and prevent problems has become a truism. The stumbling block is how to communicate to effect the desired result. Coming to the rescue, MindTools offers tips on the how. The MindTools editorial team breaks down the how into a 3-stage process with each stage being comprised of multiple steps.

Prepare for Resolution

Before embarking upon the work to resolve the conflict, leaders must first acknowledge that there’s a problem and then convince himself (or herself) and everyone else that the problem can be resolved before collaboration breaks down entirely. This involves discussing the impact the conflict has upon the team, the project, custom relations, and so forth.

Understand the Conflict

After acknowledging the conflict brewing among your team and resolving to fix it, leaders must understand why there’s a problem in the first place. This requires face-to-face conversations to ensure that each person is heard and understood. While listening to understand, not to reply, and list and confirm the underlying facts, assumptions, and beliefs for each person’s grievances. Conflict may arise from erroneous perceptions based on appearance, mannerisms, or other traits to misjudging behavior that can aggravate stereotypes and alienate people. At this stage of the process, it’s important that leaders exercise a nonjudgmental attitude and convince team members that negative expression will incur no retaliation.

Reconvene and Reach Consensus

Once everyone understands everyone else’s opinions and why and have worked on ideas for resolution, reconvene the team and work together to fashion a course of action that will take into consideration fears and assumptions as well as factual data supporting each position.
Leaders seeking to resolve conflicts before they become ugly problems must possess the trust of their teams. In the absence of that trust, an impartial and objective third party—a consultant—can facilitate the resolution process to great effect, but only if leaders follow through on the course of action agreed upon by the team. The Heggen Group has built a reputation for bringing order from the chaos caused by unproductive conflict.