How to Prevent Team Disputes Before They Start

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under communications culture leadership

Team arguing

Setting these expectations for your team can reduce problems down the road

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re in a one-to-one with one of your leaders, and they bring up a conflict with a peer, complaining that:

“I disagree with their decisions”

“I don’t see any movement”

“I’m unhappy with their behaviour”

After voicing their concerns, they ask you to intervene.

How should you respond?

A word to the wise: Passing along their feedback is tempting, but it’s a trap. You’ll quickly find yourself in the middle where each side believes they’re right.

What looked like a bad decision when you heard the original complaint makes far more sense when you hear the other side’s rationale. What sounded like no movement failed to acknowledge the work that had been achieved.

And of course, each person has a different recollection of their behaviour.

The better alternative is to empower your leader to give their feedback directly. Ask questions such as:

“What stops you from giving this feedback directly?”

“What did you learn from that?”

“What else could you try?”

Coach them to stick to the facts, explain the impact the behaviour is having, and remind them to stay curious.

Job done! No?

Well, not quite. Ask yourself a question:

What did you do — or not do — for this situation to arise in the first place?

After speaking with dozens of CEOs who find themselves mitigating conflict on their teams, I’ve uncovered three implicit rules that help teams avoid the most common sources of conflict.

Let’s make them explicit.

Rule 1: Great leaders always manage stakeholders

Stakeholder management
Stakeholder management is a skill every senior manager needs to master. Here’s my three-step playbook:

  1. Acknowledge what they care about: “I know getting the website live is important to you so that prospects see a consistent message.” If you aren’t 100% certain what they care about, the only way is to ask.
  2. Explain why the plan is changing: “To avoid risking our SEO, I wanted to make sure our links are forwarded correctly, and this has taken an extra day to get right.” Stating your reasons before sharing your decision helps your decision sound reasonable.
  3. Show you’re trying to accommodate: “I can commit to getting the website live by this Friday. In the meantime, I’ve updated the titles on the old website so they align with the new messaging.” Even small gestures and compromises show that you respect their position.

Rule 2: Great leaders always share their progress

In the absence of information, people assume the worst. So when leaders don’t show regular progress, their peers can start to lose faith.

Asking leaders to share concrete progress regularly can:

  • stop people from assuming the worst
  • build a sense of momentum
  • ensure that progress is acknowledged and celebrated

When you focus on the progress you’ve made rather than the mountain left to climb, everyone feels more knowledgeable, appreciative and grateful.

“I didn’t realise you did that. Thank you!”

Rule 3: Great leaders always check their blindspots

Occasionally, a CEO will tell me: “My team always shares their feedback. There’s nothing I don’t know.”

This is naive for any CEO to say.

Why? Because if your team shared everything, it would start World War III. There are moments when we all must hold something back to preserve relationships.

Rather than relying on your team to give feedback, encourage them to ask for advice.

Research suggests that asking for advice is more effective at drawing out actionable improvements.

Being a good team player
In summary, here are three expectations to set with your leadership team:

  1. Manage your stakeholders
  2. Share your progress
  3. Check your blindspots

What’s the best way to set these expectations with your team members? Share this model and discuss it together. Find out what they care about. After all, they are your stakeholders, too.

 Related reading

Originally published Apr 10, 2024

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