How can I resolve conflicts within my team?

Team members must be able to work together effectively. Working effectively, however, means seeking the best solution to a problem under discussion. This can trigger disagreements. As a good manager, you don't want disagreements to escalate into unpleasant conflicts. On the other hand, you don't want your team's members to fail to pursue different solutions to a problem because they think such action will trigger conflicts. Failure to express different opinions and defend them can prompt groupthink, which can put an end to any creative thinking within the group.

You can confront the disputants in the hope of getting them to recognize how their behavior is interfering with the team's mission. This is a response that works if the team is composed of members who report directly to you but less likely to be effective if it is made up of individuals from different areas of the organization.

Or you can refocus the group's attention on the operating rules members agreed to use to achieve its goal and, more important, on the goal itself.

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Refocusing the group's attention on its ground rules—which include how disagreements will be handled—and the importance of the mission to the team's members or corporation as a whole, ensures an end to unpleasant behavior associated with disagreements yet permits the airing of different viewpoints from team members.

A ground rule related to disagreements, for instance, might be: The team will allow each member the chance to talk, and will hear out other members without interruption. Another might be: The focus of the team will be on its mission; the group will not be distracted by side issues.

Finally, you need to set up a ground rule that relates to how decisions will be reached. For instance, you might all agree that disagreements will be resolved by vote, slowly eliminating items until only one workable solution remains.

To help the group formulate ground rules that will keep disagreements from interfering with the team's goals, ask the group's members to consider what behaviors will detract from the team's mission and what behaviors will contribute to its achievement. Critical to conflict management is raising the question early on: How will we handle conflicts and disagreements among us? Keep in mind that differences may arise about the team's mission, how to achieve that mission (the tasks), and the dynamics of the group itself.

Input from the team in addressing these issues in the ground rules will support your subsequent actions as leader—and will ensure member support in the event that a difference gets out of hand and two or more team members bring personalities into their disagreement.

When I hear rumors that an employee is angry with me, how do I deal with him?

Seek out the person and ask him or her about the rumor. If the individual denies the rumor, there is nothing more you can do. On the other hand, if the person acknowledges that he or she is angry with something you said or did, then you need to get the person to elucidate. You need to have a sense of the true source of the difference that could become a conflict between you.

When you understand the nature of the problem, you will be able to discuss how the situation can be remedied. Hear out the other party. Don't interrupt. When you interrupt, you tell the speaker that you aren't really listening. You've already prejudged him or his viewpoint and you see no reason to hear him out.

Nor should you jump ahead with your angry coworker and assume that you both will never lunch together again. Paraphrase what you heard. Ask the person if you are accurate in understanding his complaint. Show a willingness to understand. When your peer tells you, "You don't understand," don't respond, "Of course, I do." Rather, tell the individual, "I want to understand."

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If the real problem seems to have nothing to do with what the individual is saying, probe more deeply to get the person to expand on his or her comments. Once you know the true nature of the dispute, you can refocus your mindset to defuse the situation. It's not you versus the other person but rather you trying to come to grips with a difference that needs to be resolved in order for a positive relationship with the other person to resume.

Toward that, direct the discussion to new behaviors. If it is possible to do as the person requests, do so. If you can't help your colleague as he or she wishes, what can you do? You both have to decide how to prevent a recurrence of the situation that brought you to this point in your relationship. You might also want to apologize if you find that you were in the wrong. If the upset is due to an omission or commission on your part, admit your mistake and ask, "What can I do to make it up to you?"

If you agree to your colleague's request, keep your promise. Each time you promise but then fail to do as you offered, you lose a little of the respect of others, until you will have none left.

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