Conflict 101: Setting the Ground Rules and Refereeing the Team

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Conflict. It is an essential ingredient for high performing teams, but when it is not productive it’s a destructive force that kills creativity and saps institutional energy.

To ensure the conditions are right for productive and healthy conflict, be sure 2 things are present:

1.      Shared Ground Rules

2.      Good Refereeing

Anytime more than one person is involved it is good to have Ground Rules.  Ground Rules help people understand the basic expectations and rules of engagement for a group, a team, a partnership, or an organization.

Establishing Ground Rules

How do you establish Ground Rules? Start with a Communication Conversation. Here’s how to get started:

Invite your team or colleague to a conversation:

"I want this team/partnership/project to be successful. Can we talk about the communication rhythm and process that will allow both of us to perform at our best? I want to hear what you need/prefer, and want to be able to share what I need/prefer with you. From there I am confident we can find a process that will help both of us."

At the meeting:

1.      Frame your desired outcome.

2.      Ask what communication processes help the other person/team perform at their best.

3.      Listen carefully and reflect back what you hear.

4.      Share the ways you are able to meet some (or all) of those communication preferences.

5.      Ask the other party if they are willing to hear your communication needs.

6.      Share your communication needs. Make clear requests about which of these are most important to you.

7.      Communicate back what was agreed on by both parties.

And, finally,

8.      Agree to follow up the following month to check in on how it’s going.   

Some questions you might ask during the conversation:

·        What do you need from me, in what format, for this scope of work to be successful for you?

·        How do you best like to manage your time and communication?

·        Based on what we have heard from each other: At what interval should we communicate? In what format?

One of my teams created the following Ground Rules:

1.      Work at a sustainable pace.

2.      Take the time regularly to ensure that what we are doing aligns with the vision, values, and current mission of the team.

3.      When there are problems speak up, speak directly, and when you speak say the last 10% or what is bothering you so that it can be out on the table and we can address it.

4.      Regularly recognize what is going well on the team.

5.      There are no bad ideas: be creative, be forthcoming.

6.      Once a decision is made, we speak with one voice, and support each other within the rest of the organization.

A Final Thought: Refereeing the Team

Now that you have great Ground Rules, you have to referee the team. People mess up. It is what happens next that makes all the difference. Once you have your plan in place, before you leave the conversation agree on when you will check in next to evaluate how it’s going. Plan this up front! For ongoing colleagues, a monthly check in is an important collegial habit. Also, agree at the outset how you will signal each other when something has gone wrong, so the issue can be addressed quickly. It is when mis-steps and mis-alignment are not addressed that mis-trust begins to grow. Be sure you have a follow up plan, so that you start and end strong together.