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Conflict debt: What it is and why it’s crushing teamwork today

Jonathan Kirschner, AIIR
Jonathan Kirschner
Jonathan Kirschner is the founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting, a global coaching and leadership development provider dedicated to helping increase the effectiveness and performance of leaders and their organizations.

J. Richard Hackman, a psychologist who pioneered the study of teams in the workplace, once said, “When you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary. But don’t count on it.”

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At their best, high-performing teams can make better decisions, take on more complex work and achieve results beyond the sum of their individual team members’ capabilities. There is an X factor with high-performing teams where 1+1= 3. But most teams feel less than magic lately, and we have seen that teams comprised of brilliant individuals are unable to produce even a fraction of what their members could accomplish alone. Why?

To answer this question, we recently analyzed three years of data from our AIIR Team Effectiveness® Survey, a team effectiveness assessment that has been used by thousands of executive teams across industries and around the world. What did the data reveal?

Teams are drowning in conflict debt

What is conflict debt? Conflict debt, just like financial debt, is the accumulation of unresolved conflict over time.

Since the start of the year, leaders and their teams have been dealing with an unpredictable economy, an unstable geopolitical environment and an unbroken chain of crises. Layered on top of these challenges is a return-to-work stalemate, disengagement and degraded morale, and rounds of layoffs and budget cuts that have them doing more work with fewer resources.

In this challenging context, conflicts inevitably arise. However, our data showed that rather than dealing with them head-on, teams have been pushing them to the side and accumulating conflict debt.

Last year, we compared 12 months of aggregate assessment data from senior leadership teams to the same from the two years prior. We saw a steep decline in the number of respondents who endorsed the following items:

  • Team members address the root causes of conflicts rather than just the symptoms.
  • Team members embrace disagreement and address issues directly.
  • Team members clearly communicate their expectations of each other.
  • Team members regularly provide feedback on each other’s work.

As you can see, team members aren’t communicating expectations or providing each other feedback. In that kind of environment, conflict is inevitable. But, rather than directly addressing problems, teams are sweeping them to the side, allowing their conflict debt to accumulate.

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The more debt, the harder it is for the team members to engage each other in an authentic, trusting manner. That subsequently impacts a team’s relationships, the quality of their collaboration, their ability to respond to change and their ability to produce results.

Confronting conflict debt is hard. It’s messy, emotionally draining and it doesn’t always end with a neat resolution. But it is the only way teams can maintain the level of performance companies need to succeed. Here are three actions teams can take right now:

1. Confront conflict directly and constructively

The starting point for teams needs to be an acknowledgment of the issue and the cost that comes with it. There comes a point on every team where it becomes impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. But, here’s the thing about that elephant: It took time to get that big and left unaddressed, it will only get bigger.

Some of the teams we’ve worked with have been adding unresolved conflicts to their balance sheets for years. It makes sense that you shouldn’t expect to resolve all of those conflicts at once. You have to make space to work through them line by line.

Creating space and dedicating time to deal with these conflicts is 60% of the battle. The other 40% is making sure your team is equipped to work through their conflict constructively; otherwise, these conversations can quickly swirl. It helps to have a framework in place to keep things as productive as possible:

  • Be direct, as opposed to indirect or blunt
  • Be curious, as opposed to indifferent or judgmental
  • Be helpful, as opposed to avoidant
  • Make sure the progress you make one moment isn’t undone in the next. I always recommend leaders build a monthly cadence of conflict check-ins with their teams.

Learn how to improve teamwork and help your organization through ongoing uncertainty at HRE‘s upcoming EPIC Conference, April 24-26, in Las Vegas. Tony Martignetti of Inspired Purpose Partners will explore how organizations can harness courage, curiosity and compassion to navigate uncertainty in his closing keynote.

2. Share feedback

There are two truths about feedback: (1) It is one of the most effective ways to grow, and (2) Nobody likes giving or getting it. That’s because, depending on how it is given or received, feedback can be a catalyst for conflict.

When you view feedback as a threat, it activates your fight or flight response—no different than if a bear were running toward you. However, when you view feedback as an opportunity to grow, it can feel like a gift. Leaders can start to move their teams in the right direction with three quick wins:

  • Share your philosophy on the importance of feedback with your team members and set your expectations.
  • Upskill your teams to give better feedback. How you give feedback is almost as important as the feedback you provide.
  • Practice. Sharing feedback is a muscle that will atrophy without use. Create opportunities for feedback in team meetings that will build habits over time.

Beyond these quick wins, building a team culture where feedback is readily given and received will require you to lead by example. As a team leader, you have to be transparent about your successes and failures and be willing to accept feedback up the ladder. And your team members have to be empowered to share feedback with you without fear of retribution.

3. Set and reset expectations

One of the hardest challenges for a leader is setting clear performance expectations when what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow. To avoid the fatigue of setting and then resetting expectations, leaders sometimes give up. The result? Only half of workers know what is expected of them.

Unclear expectations pose an obvious problem for performance: If nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing, your team is unlikely to get anything done. Unclear expectations can also create a sense of unfairness. If team members aren’t sure what is expected of them, feedback will likely feel unexpected. Conflict is certain to be especially unproductive when one party feels like they are being treated unfairly.

Instead of abandoning expectations, leaders need to establish an expectation that expectations may change.

And you need to be sure to communicate those changes. As a leader, you should always ask yourself, “What are my expectations for this project?” “What are my expectations for this person?” and “Have I clearly communicated these expectations?”

Finally, expectations must be coupled with accountability. Accountability manifests in the form of frequent check-ins, sharing feedback and ultimately reinforcing a culture of execution by rewarding successful execution and addressing poor performance.

High-performing teams are essential to sustainable success

Our data shows that there are clear areas where teams are faltering, particularly around conflict resolution, sharing feedback and communicating expectations. By dedicating focus to conflict resolution, encouraging a culture of feedback and setting clear expectations, teams can work down their conflict debt, activate their potential, navigate the challenges of this new era and shape a better future.