Weather the Storm without Mutiny: managing conflict in Crisis

Weather the Storm without Mutiny: managing conflict in Crisis

Crises put significant pressure on relationships and surface conflicts that might pass unnoticed during better times. We recently read somewhere that divorce filings have seen a spike during the Covid lockdown. If this is true of couples, it is even truer of organizational teams. While large organizations usually have systems in place to mitigate the negative impact of interpersonal conflict, for younger companies, discord within teams can be lethal. According to a survey of 14 accelerators done by entrepreneur.com, team conflict is one of the three most cited reasons for start-ups failing. So, at this time founders/ CEOs have to be particularly vigilant about managing the dynamics within their team and helping them ride through this challenging period.

Founders of a start-up typically come together because they share passion for an idea and are on the same page about what they want to accomplish.

The euphoria of creating together is so energizing that they may not anticipate a possible divergence of ideas, needs or direction in the future. And such conflict when it happens can be unsettling.

But change is inevitable and can bring with it dissonance within the team. First, Individual priorities may evolve. Second, as the organization grows/ pivots individuals personal goals may not be aligned to that change. Third, as the team grows, individuals may feel alienated and isolated in the silo of their responsibilities. Fourth, a mix of loyalty and hubris may keep individual team members from admitting when they are struggling with newly defined responsibilities. Sometimes for individual members of teams built on great camaraderie the idea of acknowledging conflict or seeking support is unavailable as an option and this keeps issues brewing unhealthily.

Covid is in many ways the perfect storm that is taking its toll on many businesses. Under business and financial pressures, pre-existing fissures in team relationships rise to the surface. These manifest in different ways.

The color of conflict

Of course there may be disagreement about the work itself, the goals to pursue, what measures to use, strategic tensions say, between the voice of customer and the voice of technology or of money. Such disagreement broadly referred to as task conflict has by and large been proven to have a beneficial effect on performance. There should be a certain amount of task conflict to get the team to their best levels of performance.

Start-up teams that we know typically run into rough weather when it comes to interpersonal conflict and not knowing how to handle this. Interpersonal conflict can be trickier because it breeds mistrust and dislike. Often, the preferred modus operandi that we see among start-up leaders is to over-leverage personal connect with team members to neutralize such issues. But this is short term and does not equip the team to resolve issues themselves without outside mediation.

Mapping the conflict – knowing the team’s pulse

CEOs must steer their teams’ energies towards facing challenges collectively instead of against each other. Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton reportedly had an interesting way of handling conflict in his team of brave explorers (Nancy Koehn, 2012, Forged in a Crisis; HBR) During his expeditions to Antartica, he would do a check on his team from time to time – for vulnerabilities. His notes from that time showed that he tracked who was feeling low, sick and also those who were potential ‘troublemakers’. He would then infuse his interactions with each to ‘bring them back to the fold’ – whether with a kind word or extra hot chocolate for sustenance or simply keeping them close so he could keep an eye on them.

We employed a similar principle with a Bangalore based company that had to make a significant pivot to ride out this Covid crisis. With the CEO, we mapped all of his direct reportees on a variety of criteria. We assessed to see who was (1) not completely aligned to the new direction, (2) not entirely comfortable with newly defined role/ job description (e.g. either too much responsibility or significantly reduced)  and (3) feeling personally overwhelmed (anxious for family members, etc). Much of this can be gauged intuitively when a team is meeting regularly. But now, when people work remotely and disparately, keeping a close eye on this becomes vital for the leader.

This nuanced mapping helped our CEO come up with a plan for how to engage with each of his reportees to bring them on board and address potential vulnerabilities in his team.

Handling conflict – what the leader can do

Conflict is a natural aspect of interpersonal interactions and can foster better decisions when harnessed properly. In today’s context, where the external environment is in churn, taking charge of the turbulence in the team is critical. We recommend the following steps:

  • Deepen your understanding of the situation by getting feedback from others in the organization and outside rather than relying on one or two points of view
  • Ensure everyone feels heard. This is particularly vital in a time of stress or goal/ model pivot when individuals can feel unsettled or disenfranchised by the new situation
  • Acknowledge emotions that people are going through. The only way they will share how they feel is if they find acceptance
  • Be aware of how you yourself feel about the conflict. Leaders often operate out of their own relationship with conflict (avoidance, etc.) instead of what the company really needs
  • It must always be ‘about the company’. Decisions must be taken from the lens of what is best for the organization and there must be transparency of the criteria used to decide. All disagreements must be approached with the view that people contribute with the same sentiment
  • Deliberately find ways back to equity. Everyone in the team needs to understand that decisions will be based on the issue and not based on who has the leader’s ear
  • Put the onus of resolving it on the involved parties. Call out the conflict and tell those involved that you expect them to thrash it out and come back with a solution that is collectively agreed upon
  • Leverage your team to collectively solve conflicts together. For e.g., ideas proposed are debated together and decisions embraced democratically must be adhered to
  • Bring in a mediator. A mentor/ coach – a third party who can facilitate a dialogue between those involved
  • Train your team to communicate with minimum judgment or at least acknowledge their judgment/bias. How questions are framed, how opinions are stated will set the tone for staying on topic and not making disagreements personal
  • Take a break. Sometimes when things get heated, insist everyone walk away and come to it after sleeping on it. The break can help people see the situation in a fresher, more conciliatory perspective

An interesting method we used with another client organization is for the heads of businesses to take each other’s places and present the role of that function. That is, the Sales head presented from Op’s point of view, and Ops presented from Finance’s point of view. This pushed the team to look at the issue a lot more than personalities. And the conflict that surfaced turned out to be a process bottleneck which was resolved by the leader by hiring a central resource who would ‘project-manage’ the flow of work across teams.

Employees are currently faced with a mix of systemic uncertainty, business volatility and personal anxiety and this plays out in team dynamics. These are times when leaders need to show particular sensitivity to the team’s sense of the collective and remain open to trying different ways of managing conflict. As any ship captain from the adventure stories of our childhood would tell you, it is how you keep mutiny at bay, the worst storms weathered with minimum loss and new lands and fortunes found.

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