How can I keep fights from breaking out?

by Sam on June 24, 2009

Analysis: Did you miss last week’s list of the top dozen contributors to interpersonal strife? If so, you may want to reference the April 2009 archives for a quick review. Those conflict causes are our targets this week.

The central notion undergirding the brief that you’re reading right now is that conflict prevention is much easier than conflict resolution. As division widens, emotions escalate, and hurts deepen, interpersonal discord becomes more resistant to treatment.

Answer: So what can you do to minimize destructive disagreement on your team (or in your family) so that you don’t have to play the role of referee?

1.   Put your team on the same directional page. Give them a powerful purpose, a vision for the future, a new tomorrow that they can get excited to work towards together. Make it clear, definitive, and engaging. Cause them to feel as they would if they were erecting a house for a family in need.

2.   Put your team on the same priorities page. See that your team operates from a distinctive set of strategic goals. These are the transformations or improvements that they agree with you are necessary to achieve the outcomes (revenue, profits, et al) that they have been tasked with. They may not agree with the appropriateness of every outcome. That’s understandable. But disagreement about what the team will do to realize those outcomes is unacceptable.

3.   Make clear who does what. Provide team members with job descriptions that identify who is responsible for getting every part of the mission accomplished. Often the most serious ownership questions are raised between rather than within teams. Equally crucial here is not to permit responsibility to fall through the cracks: “That’s not my job!”

4.   Make your needs known. I once worked for a senior administrator who must have thought he hired Kreskin the mind reader. I knew what my duties were, but I had few clues about his values and of how he wanted me to perform my duties. Don’t do to your team what he did to me. Give them your rules of the road to minimize discord with you and with each other.

5.   Hire team players. What a novel thought! When you hire people do you make the common error of assuming that experience and education are the best predictors of success? Or do you look for evidence that the candidate in front of you works well with others and will jell with the incumbents on your team?

6.   Assemble compatible people. There are a number of validated assessments that can help you to organize your teams such that they are well-matched in the way they are hard-wired. While you don’t want a staff of clones, you do want to head off, or at least anticipate, personality clashes.

7.   Deal with trouble makers. Pareto’s Law suggests that 20% of your employees cause 80% of the interpersonal conflict on your team. This 20% needs to be put on notice by you. Do not tolerate fighting and bickering. Step in quickly to resolve instances of conflict using the tools you’ll see in two weeks. Impose consequences when necessary. Set an example.

8.   Get help for those who need it. It may be that a “lightening rod” on your team is a soul in need of professional counsel.

9.   Create a team charter. Establish clear rules of the road to guide employee behavior. Get team members to agree to treat each other with manners, civility, and thoughtfulness. (See April 22, 2009 archives for how to do this.)

10.  Insist on great internal customer service. So many executives demand exceptional service for ultimate customers and pay too little attention to disarray among the internal functions that must harmonize in order for such service to occur. Require nothing less than close interteam collaboration. Evaluate it in your performance review process. (See March 18, 2009 archives for how to overcome silo behavior.)

11.  Distribute resources fairly. Take great care to allocate people, equipment, material, facilities, and credit for accomplishments so rationally that employees are disinclined to compete for these assets. Not sure how well you do this? Ask your people!

12.  Who did it?” When problems occur, look for solutions rather than look to place blame. Set a standard on your team for problem solving rather than people bashing.

13.  Attack issues not people. When you need to correct team members, don’t judge, demand, threaten, or moralize. Reject punishment as a successful behavior modification strategy. (See the upcoming 7/22 “Ask” on constructive criticism.)

14.  Don’t pit people against each other. Someone once said that competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people. Team on team competitions can be a tonic. Person on person competitions can also be a tonic, but can quickly turn toxic. Why not instead reward people for cooperation with each other?

So you’ve done everything on this list, you say, and your team still bickers? Don’t be surprised. Prevention is definitely the smart way to go, but the best laid plans… So, at 6AM next Wednesday you’ll learn how best to conduct yourself in a quarrel when you’re one of the combatants. On the Wednesday after that, the prescriptions will strengthen your skills as a referee of quarrels.

Aphorism: Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come. ~Carl Sandburg

Approaching: Is there a “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Shoot me an email for a sneak preview.

7/1: What is the best way to fight?
7/8: When (and how) should I step in to break up a fight?
7/15: What are the most inspiring thoughts about leadership?
7/22: How can I do a better job of delivering criticism?
7/29: Who, me–a praise miser?
8/5: How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?
8/12: Why do many performance appraisal systems fail to improve performance?
8/19: What role do manners and civility play in the workplace?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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