Diagnosing Team Conflict: A Case Study (part 1 of 2)

Mike Gellman

Does it ever feel like Groundhog Day, when the same work conflicts keep coming up over and over? I once consulted to a team of eight employees who had been bickering and sniping at each other for years. One day the powder keg finally exploded.

A member of the Claims team lit the fuse by sending an anonymous letter to the Director and VP, bypassing both their immediate Supervisor and Manager. In this letter, they lodged various grievances and serious accusations. Once word about the letter got back to the team, much finger-pointing, name-calling, and CYA activity ensued. At this point I was called in to help.

After interviewing each team member, I discovered that one of the lightning rod issues was the shared usage of two company vehicles. The team was constantly fighting over these vehicles, which they used for carrying out field work.

The airing of transgressions went on and on. For example, one day the vehicle would be left in the wrong parking spot. Another day, someone would take the vehicle home for the night and it wouldn’t be available in the morning for the next person. Another time, someone would leave their smelly gym bag in the back seat. Then someone spilled their sticky soda on the front console and didn’t clean it up. Others failed to fill up the gas tank before returning their vehicle. The Supervisor even threatened to pull the vehicles to no effect.

If you’re a leader having experienced similar situations, you’ve probably found yourself thinking “Just stop acting like kindergarteners!”

 Yet, after working with the team to address the underlying foundational issues at the root of most of their problems; the team was able to resolve the vehicle-sharing issue amongst themselves in less than 15 minutes.

Imagine that! An issue that had plagued them for years was finally eviscerated.

So how do you get your team to that point? Sometimes there is not an obvious solution. As such, I’ll share a couple initial steps below that you can take to accurately describe and diagnose the problem. Taking these steps will vastly improve your chances of success. In a subsequent article, I will share some practical steps you can take to resolve it.

How can you resolve team conflicts in a sustainable way?

Step #1: Examine and describe the impact

In the rush to solutions and damage control, leaders often fail to define the most significant problem to be solved. Often, there are related ripple effects above and below the surface. So many conflicts appear to be a surface level issue, when they are actually a symptom of a deeper issue.

The key is to identify what’s ultimately being affected by this conflict and why that matters.

In the team’s shared vehicle issue described above, the problem was emblematic of larger patterns of inconsistency. The team members had issues with how accident claims were identified and processed, which sometimes resulted in incorrect payouts of customer claims. This put them at risk of losing opportunities to recover millions of dollars in reimbursements from third party insurance agencies. Moreover, such inconsistencies put the company at risk for millions of dollars in regulatory fines.

Therefore, it’s incumbent upon you as leader to objectively reflect on the overarching impact of the conflict. Otherwise, without clear and compelling reasons, your efforts and energy may fizzle out when complications arise as you and the team address the issue at hand.

Step #2: Diagnose the root cause(s)

When creating a treatment plan, it’s tempting to tackle the presenting symptoms, slap on a quick fix solution, and move on. The hope is that the conflict will work itself out over time. Yet, team conflicts rarely ever do. In fact, they have a way of festering and growing into bigger problems, begetting new ones that compound and complicate the team’s condition over time.

In my nearly 20 years of coaching leaders and teams, I use a holistic, systemic approach to diagnosing teams in conflict. It’s crucial to be able to zoom in to get the necessary details and in-the-trenches reality of what’s going on. It’s also imperative to zoom out to detect any larger patterns. Such patterns may be environmental, cultural, structural, payoffs, and/or leadership-oriented in nature that perpetuate the “groundhog” effect.

Below are some of common causes to look for when attempting to discern the root cause(s):

1. Environmental – These are often situational conditions and “hot button” events that trigger the team members’ emotions and subsequent conflicts. On the Claims team, the nature and volume of work was highly stress inducing. Heavy stress was one of the conditions that negatively affected the health of the team. Employees reporting to an accident scene would arrive only to witness individuals who had been killed or severely injured. The trauma was often exacerbated when they interviewed the parties involved to document what happened.

2. Cultural – These are attitudes, traditions, and habits that take root within a team, evolving over time. Cultural norms pertain to how team members behave towards each other. For instance, whenever mistakes were made, Claim team members would routinely point fingers and publicly blame and shame their peers in meetings or via passive-aggressive emails. The anonymous letter to the VP took the blame game to a whole new level.

Behaviors – This is the first place most leaders focus their attention when addressing team conflicts. After all, team members’ communication and actions are easily observed as the most common reason teams get into conflict and stay stuck. Yet they aren’t necessarily easily managed, interpreted and understood. Hidden drivers of human behavior lie beneath the surface, such as beliefs, motivations, values, perceptions, and emotions.

Personalities – Differences in personality styles and communication often mix like oil and water. With the Claims team members, there was a clash of personalities which led to a crisis of confidence and trust. For instance, some members were naturally very direct in confronting injustices and issues, while others were very indirect and avoided issues like the plague.

3. Structural – Often overlooked are physical aspects that affect team performance and cohesion. These may include established policies, procedures, and proximity to one another. These factors can greatly influence a team. With the Claims team, there were many such barriers that affected their operations and overall functioning.

Proximity – Team members were physically fragmented into three different areas on the office floor, with other teams interspersed between them. Their leaders’ offices were separate and out of sight from the team. In addition, some team members even put up portable room dividers to block their cubicle openings! These barriers disconnected team members, deterring them from engaging and communicating with each other.

Policies & Procedures – Process is at the heart of this one. For example, there may be a formal policy or procedure which requires that all decisions need to be run by leadership first before being implemented. Even if it’s not an explicit policy or procedure, it still could be impeding your team. Employees aren’t strengthening their decision-making muscles and their capability to resolve things independently.

In the Claims team situation, one of the team members had been assigned as the carpool vehicle tsar. This meant they were responsible for enforcing the rules for using the vehicles. As a peer, it created an awkward situation. He wasn’t their boss, and to make matter worse, the team members often routinely ignored what they felt were arbitrary policies imposed upon them. Meanwhile, each team member had been handling claims in their cue differently. Their inconsistent decisions about when and how much to pay put the team and company in legal jeopardy.

4.  Payoffs – People generally continue repeating actions that have some sort of positive reward or avoidance of discomfort. Although, when people are in a conflict situation they don’t like, they are often not even conscious of what payoffs they are receiving. In addition, most employees make determinations of how much effort to put into something based on what gets noticed, recognized, and rewarded. They will also conduct a simple calculation of whether their personal efforts will have a material effect on desired outcomes.

Effort vs. Outcome – As a leader, assessing whether individuals feel a sense of efficacy or control over their situation are big factors (see my previous blog post on Motivating a Disengaged Workforce for a detailed dive into this concept). Despite all the problems the Claims team was experiencing, they generally met performance objectives and results. However, one of the key elements missing for the Claims team was a lack of recognition. Their hard work was not significantly recognized amongst each other or from their leadership.

In addition, even though some members were motivated to change, they lacked the ability and skills/tools to change. To get to the root of the problem for the Claims team, I had to determine whether individuals had either a motivation issue or ability issue—or a combination of both. Knowing the answer to this helps ensure that leaders choose appropriate solutions.

Pain vs. Pleasure – Each Claims team member privately and confidentially expressed a strong desire to be part of a team that accepted and supported one another, laughed and had fun together, and conducted themselves with high standards. Yet this desire was significantly outweighed by the discomfort and pain that would be involved in confronting and changing their own actions, even though they were contributing to the team’s downward spiral.

In fact, there was one elder-tenured team member who was universally respected and liked by everyone. He could have single-handedly had an immediate impact on resolving the team’s issues, yet he kept to himself. To him, getting “involved” was messy and scary. It was much easier to keep to himself and stay out of the fray.

Conversely, a younger and newer team member was universally disliked and scapegoated by her peers. She spoke her mind whenever she observed breaches of protocol and experienced injustices. She felt that saying nothing or softening her approach would have meant admitting that she sometimes poured gasoline on the fire during disagreements. She too could have had a significant and immediate impact on the team’s ability to move forward.

5.  Leadership – One of the inconvenient truths of any chronic team conflict is the nature and extent to which the leader engages with their team. Oftentimes, team leaders who ask me to help are blind to the impact they have on their team’s dynamics. The Claims team leaders were no exception.

Active vs. Passive – A leader’s personal discomfort with conflict often causes them to avoid emotionally-charged issues. When I interviewed individual Claims team members, one of the biggest themes I noticed was related to their direct Supervisor. While widely admired and sought out for his deep knowledge and guidance, he was more passively than actively involved in directing the team. He tended to stay in his office and was often tied up in other meetings—one of the traps that are common among managers.

Priorities & Resources – When team members are in conflict, it’s not unusual to discover that the team goals and (un)stated priorities are working against them. The Claims team had some mixed messages around productivity – particularly as it related to the value of quantity (speed) versus quality (control). While the Claims leader had high professional standards, his team was short-staffed; struggling with the volume of cases that they had to handle. This made it nearly impossible to keep up.

Accountability & Support – A team will pay attention to what matters most to their leadership. As such, they are constantly watching and weighing what their leaders initiate and proactively follow-up. They also pay attention to how leaders react when issues go awry. For example, when certain team members took shortcuts, they either went unnoticed, or they received a weak response when brought to his attention. This only fueled the tension among team members who each had their own caseloads to manage.

Moreover, the leader would delay his responses, and rather than address a problem directly with the appropriate employee(s), he would address the entire team at the next staff meeting instead. He would remind them all about the policy that needed to be followed or the expectations he wanted them to adhere to. These indirect attempts towards holding team members accountable prolonged the undesired pattern of behavior or performance that was at issue.

Conclusion

Understanding the undercurrents at play within your team is essential for making meaningful headway in resolving conflict. It’s important to take time up front to dig deep and assess the root cause of what is causing conflict.

In part two of this article, Resolving Team Conflicts: A Case Study, I will share how the Claims team was able to move forward. I will also share a few key steps for resolving a sticky conflict within your own team. Sign up for my free newsletter to be notified when part two is published.

Many team leaders struggle to see the forest through the trees when they are too close to the situation, have become too biased, and/or emotionally involved. It’s important to realize that the above strategies may not be possible if you are too enmeshed in your team’s situation.

In that case, it’s time to tap a neutral and objective third party to help you assess the situation. Whether they are an internal HR Business Partner or external consultant, they will be able to diagnose what you may otherwise miss.

What is the next step you will take to address your team conflict?

Need help to assess and resolve a team conflict? I would love to partner with you. Learn more about leadership and team coaching support for you and your organization (be sure to ask about the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team method as well). Book a complimentary Strategy Session for us to discuss your situation and explore your options.

About the Author – Mike Gellman is a seasoned coach, speaker, facilitator, and trusted advisor with 15+ years experience in Fortune 500, nonprofit, and family-owned organizations. He’s the author of Pipe Dreams: 7 Pipelines of Career Success and CEO of High Five Career Coaching which facilitates transformational business and career success among socially conscious, purpose-driven organizations, leaders, and technical professionals.

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