Most of us are incredibly busy with the day job right now.  January is typically heads down in most practices whether its dealing with tax or year end accounts and this year there’s even more to do in helping to support clients dealing with an incredibly challenging business environment.

When we’re busy, most of us become task focussed rather than relationship focussed.  When deadlines loom, that conversation with a colleague, checking in with the team, finding time for coaching and feedback – that can wait until there’s more time.

Also, lets be honest, most of us are pretty over the ‘virtual’ team meeting.  In the early days of the pandemic finding new ways to work with each other and buoy each other up was energising for many people.   Keeping relationships going was actually fairly high up on the agenda and diaries were awash with Zoom quizzes and Team hangouts.

Now, not so much, and not necessarily a bad thing.  But have we swung too far the other way?

Dealing with difficult situations and dealing with conflict in the team has always been one of the top discussion topics in our interpersonal skills workshops.  There’s no reason to think that remote working will have made conflict disappear – quite the opposite probably – but spotting the signs and the approach to dealing with it are going to need to be different.

Is it always bad?

Certainly not. Conflict means different things to different people.  At its simplest it’s a different point of view or a disagreement around how to handle an issue.  Usually dealing with these conflicts is positive and adds value.  But conflict could also be a more serious falling out impacting on whether relationships (and I’ll stick to working relationships here) are effective. And teams are only as good as the relationships that bind the members together.

Responses to conflict differ too.  A conflict will be perceived by our unconscious brain as a threat.  Our first response is likely to be ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’.  Once our conscious brain gets involved, we then decide which of those we’re going to go with – or not.  We’ll have an approach we tend to gravitate towards, and the danger is we use it in every situation.

Some people find conflict energising. They enjoy the competitive aspect of engaging in a debate, a robust exchange of views.  They won’t hold back from expressing those views and, if the other party is in a similar place, the conflict can be resolved pretty quickly.

Similarly, people who enjoy collaboration won’t shy away from attempting to resolve issues, though the process of taking everyone’s views into account might take a little longer.

But what about those people who are more likely to flee?  Those who withdraw from a conflict situation, behave passively, always let the other person have their way, don’t want to cause a row?  This might be the right approach in some situations but not all the time.  Important points may go unheard, resentment can build, and relationships suffer.

Spotting it and dealing with it

When we were in the office, we were much more likely to spot changes in behaviour and have an appropriate moment to ask whether someone’s ok or whether something needs to be brought to the table.  Dealing with difficult situations in a remote environment is much harder.

  1. Frequent communication

If you’re not communicating as regularly with your team as you did, think about how you might do.  Regular team check-ins and virtual social events might really help.  The Zoom quiz may have become a chore but the need for team communication hasn’t gone away.  Time spent understanding what your team is thinking and feeling is never wasted.

  1. Ask and listen

People are different; our personality preferences impact hugely on how we communicate and understand others.  Some wear their hearts on their sleeves and are likely to readily express views; others need to be asked.  Are you listening to your team (and watching – body language is key) and remembering to ask how people are?

  1. Be courageous

You might need to be a little brave to deal with conflict.  It is can be easier to let an issue lie, particularly if it is a relationship issue.

But if we don’t step up then the building blocks of effective teamwork suffer.  Lots has been written about effective teamwork over the years and I’d particularly recommend a look at Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunction’s of a Team’.  He writes that dealing with conflict and airing views is essential so that the team members can commit to objectives and be held accountable for their performance.

Moving on

There’s no doubt that conflicts must be addressed – differing views can be brought to the table and discussed.  Once voices have been heard, and only then, can the team move on together.  Not that this is necessarily an easy process but ignoring an issue is certainly not going to help.

If you’re a leader, ask, check in with your team, reinstate some of those regular meetings.  If you have an issue – speak up, bring it to the table, be brave.

Only then can you move on – ignoring it won’t help.