Teamwork is essential in the workplace. Leading and working in teams is part of developing and honing leadership skills. Yet conflict among members of a team, even one chosen for harmonious interaction, occurs frequently.
The Harvard Business Review points out that most teams are put together first, with managers and team members handling conflict after it occurs.
The authors assert that a more productive method is to explore five areas before the team begins its work. The five areas examine how each team member 1) looks, 2) acts, 3) speaks, 4) thinks, and 5) feels.
First, this method proactively helps to avoid conflict areas rather than experiencing them when employees are in the thick of the work - and experiencing the loss of productivity or cutting short potential synergies on the team.
Second, it gives team members insight into each other so they can become a harmonious team and not be derailed by attitudes stemming from differences in any of the five categories.
Third, the method lays the groundwork to discuss process before the focus turns to content.
In all the areas, managers should aim to eliminate preconceptions and to reduce attitudes that might cause conflict. Nonconfrontational communication is the key.
The Five Categories
How team members look - Anyone who has worked in an organization knows that how coworkers look - styles of dress, personal choices, and characteristics - affect how they are perceived. How people look can also affect whether they are viewed as members of the team. Major conflicts can stem from something as seemingly insignificant as a suit-wearing business department working on a team with khaki-wearing creatives.
How team members act - Teams need to discuss actions. Is meeting deadlines, for example, considered essential by one department and aspirational by another? Does one group value punctuality at a common time and the other prioritize flextime? How people act also covers, of course, the degree of friendliness, small talk, and informal interaction.
How members speak - This can be an area of conflict on multiple levels. First, how much do people speak? If some team members speak a great deal and others never contribute, it may be advisable to institute meetings in which short contributions from everyone are mandatory. A simple, proven methodology is to allow each team member the same limited time to address the topic until every member has had an opportunity to contribute. Apply the same rule for a second or third round of discussion.
Second, when people agree, are they agreeing to a set of methods in product or delivery? Or are they simply agreeing in principle, with no sense that they will be held to "yes." The authors pinpoint this as a major area of conflict.
How members think - Whether people are rational or intuitive, or numbers- or concept-driven matters a great deal to a functional team. The HBR authors give a telling example of a biotech company where scientists valued a failed experiment for what it told them about the science, while the business group mourned the loss of a potential product.
How members feel - Some team members may feel the appropriate way to communicate is a rah-rah, pep rally style. Other executives are direct. Others make demands to incentivise production. The various feelings expressed need to be explored as a group.
In general, proactive steps can replace pounds of cure if a group functions less than optimally or fails to function at all. These five categories can help ensure smooth functioning.