Conflict is a natural and inevitable element in any long-term human relationship. It just varies in intensity and duration.
Conflict within a good team is actually a very healthy and normal part of the team development process (when it is well-managed). In the team development process, so elegantly described in Tuckman's Model, it occurs most obviously in the 2nd stage known as the "Storming" stage. (See an article on the Sabre Team Building page on Tuckman's Model for more insights on this well-known model).
Conflict must be openly and constructively addressed during this stage of a team's development if the team wishes to progress through to the final (and much sought-after) stage of "Performing".
Understanding how each of the 9 Belbin Team Role styles will deal with conflict (or perhaps not deal with it in the case of the Team Role of "Teamworker" that can be avoidant of all conflict ) is of tremendous use to leaders and team members.
So what is conflict?
In a nutshell...
A communication problem or clash of Team Role operating styles between 2 or more people.
Differences of opinion, one feels another is blocking them from a goal or clash of styles.
More likely to occur when personal characteristics differ, but can also occur when they are just too similar (for example 2 Shapers going to war over who has the status or control within a team).
Once it arises it tends to escalate as each party pushes their view as the correct one.
Aggression and strong emotional bias may arise.
Unresolved it can impact relationships, lead to more conflict and poor or failed execution and de skills people and teams and wastes energy.
If properly resolved can actually lead to new ideas and enhanced respect and understanding.
Most people really don’t enjoy conflict (especially those that have the Team Role of "Teamworker"), but it occurs in all long term human interactions to some degree. It just varies in intensity and duration on a case by case basis due to what underpins it and how well or poorly the parties involved choose to deal with it.
A detailed knowledge of which natural team role preferences are coming into play with the protagonists can often enable a quicker understanding to be reached, better compromises to be made and lasting solutions to be found.
"Team Reports" can be generated to offer deep insight into the overall team dynamic whilst "Working Relationship" reports will give valuable feedback on the interpersonal dynamics that exist between 2 people.
As a new team develops, or even with a well-established team, this knowledge can be used to better diagnose sources of conflict and avoid unnecessary biases, wasted energy and clashes.
Sources of conflict can often be diagnosed as variances of Team Role operating styles. These are simply and elegantly expressed in the clusters of behaviour that are measured by a Belbin profile. These insights can then be used to identify possible root causes of conflict and to reduce the length and severity of conflict.
It can take the "heat" and "personality" out of interpersonal clashes by simply applying a more objective language and framework for looking at how existing differences manifest and why. This objectivity can help to create better strategies for avoiding new clashes and for more calmly resolving existing ones.
What causes this conflict?
Whilst it is inevitable in all teams, it has many causes. Amongst them are...
Changing work environments and constant cycles of change and uncertainty
Frustration with authority
Mental and physical tiredness
Lack of tolerance and familiarity with other operating styles under pressure
Different Team Role styles, professional standards, backgrounds and experience
Backlogs, changed procedures etc etc
...all of which can all enhance likelihood of conflict.
If not properly resolved, conflict can chronically undermine teamwork and daily execution. It can also spread like a nasty virus.
Research shows that conflict is more common and severe in teams that are spread across different locations rather than those where all are co located (as we know, emails can be damaging and impersonal substitutes for face to face resolution).
Not all conflict is bad.
Conflict often arises from different team role styles being driven to help achieve the team's objectives in different ways. There is enormous scope to harness this as a power for good when the value of this "diversity" is made more apparent.
Our desired end-state within a team may be the same, it's just that we are often using such different styles to help the team get there. We thus look at things through the very different lenses that are afforded to us by our preferred Team Role styles. We will likewise communicate about and deal with conflict in varied ways.
A better understanding of this can lead to quicker resolution of conflicts and to more productive solutions that actually improve the way the team works together ongoing. Well handled conflict can indeed bring about a deeper and more natural understanding of the needs and positions of others.
If people fight about the right things (e.g. how the team is going about achieving its aims) then it can usually be dealt with quickly and professionally. This naturally relies upon having the luxury of a mature and professional set of individuals working together (and good leadership).
Where maturity and professionalism are in doubt (or leadership is absent or poor), then unfortunately petty and ongoing interpersonal issues can actually destroy a team altogether.
"Unresolved conflict" is the real threat, not "healthy conflict".
Unresolved conflict is the real threat as it can permanently damage relationships and undermine teams and projects.
It is often seen as an irony by those new to Team Role theory that a dynamic Team Role like "The Shaper" (usually competitive, driven and not at all averse to a fight), can actually help a team by bringing conflict into the open at the right time.
The Team Role of "Teamworker", usually a great advocate of team harmony can actually cause conflict to worsen and remain unresolved if they permit their usual "allowable weakness" of "conflict avoidance" to leave important conflicts un-addressed.
Ineffective approaches to conflict resolution can include...
Avoiding or denying (usually just sends it underground and it then festers and spreads)
‘Blame-storming’ (helps escalation and infection)
Use power or status to override other party (creates resentment and leads to even more conflict)
An alternative approach is joint problem solving and also to accept the fact that conflict “just happens” and its how we resolve it that matters.
A good Co-ordinator may be also be useful in making this apparent to people and to help initiating those "difficult conversations" with more tact a "Shaper".
Basic steps to resolution
It's important to take into account the different Team Role styles that may be in play during any given conflict. It is also worth looking at the strengths and weaknesses of these styles and how it may impact the nature of the conflict.
A conflict between a creative Plant and an analytical Monitor Evaluator over a complex and cerebral matter is likely to be held on a very different wavelength to that of a calm but obstinate Co-ordinator and a fiery Shaper butting heads over who should take command of a project.
Imagine also an excitable "Resource Investigator" eagerly pushing for changes to established procedures, and looking through a very different lens to the entrenched and conservative "Implementer" standing opposite them and digging their heels in for the status quo to remain in place.
Some simple steps can be to.....
Commit to agreed joint action and problem solving.
Remove emotions and replace them with with facts ("Monitor Evaluator"s are useful allies here).
Analyse facts and other parties perspectives, needs, concerns and anxieties.
Focus on “outcomes needed” not just “people's agendas”
Learn to disagree “professionally” so not to re escalate things.
Be aware of the obvious (and subtle) Team Role behavioural signals both verbal and non verbal people send out during the process
5 Steps to help resolve conflict
Having reviewed a recent Belbin Team report (that captures key data on the Team Role dynamics of individuals and the team as a whole) and / or a Working Relationship report (areas of strength and struggle in the relationship between 2 people)...
1. Identify actual problems and obstacles without emotion or blaming (using "Team Role Language" can be a useful and less threatening way to identify problems and clashes).
2.Brainstorm for solutions together (not ‘Blamestorm’).
3.Have both sides take responsibility for evaluating pros and cons of each possible solution. Some should arise that suit both, or at least serve as a possible compromise?
4.Select best solution and plan for and commit to implementation. Responsibility sits with both parties.
5.Sign off on it then monitor for ongoing follow through.
Awareness and monitoring of how people are managing their own individual team role strengths, allowable weaknesses and especially their "non-allowable weaknesses" is often part of an effective strategy for avoiding repeating cycles of conflict.
If people do this well in a conflict resolution session, they can better reign in their emotional reactions to a future clash when the pressure is on again.
You do not have to love each other (or even like each other for that matter), but you do need to "understand" one another .
It's important to work towards agreements that can engender not just higher levels respect for the process itself, but also for the valuable roles that are played by other team members.