Dealing with Tension in a Team

Last Updated May 3, 2007 2:18 PM EDT

Teams are complex communities of people with different values, motivations, and aspirations. When a mixture of characters and behaviors come together, there's always a potential for miscommunication, disagreement, and conflict. If such tensions are not tackled right away, they can disable and ultimately ruin a team. One of the main reasons that teams fail is because tensions are left to escalate out of control until they eventually become critical.

A well-functioning team will make use of the different personalities that comprise it. It will build the most desirable behaviors into the terms of engagement. However, no matter how well-prepared a team is, there are no guarantees that it will be free of tensions. The unexpected can still happen, so it's important to have a way of dealing with tensions and disagreements, not only to prevent the team's collapse but also to increase its creativity. In fact, tension can be a creative endeavor that results in increased innovation. With care and attention, advantages can emerge from the heart of a difference of opinion or disagreement.

What You Need to KnowWhy do tensions arise between team members?

There are many causes of tension among team members, but as a rule, disagreements over goals and priorities seem to cause more problems than personality clashes. All too often we have unspoken assumptions about the purpose and objectives of the team, and we assume that others understand them in the same way that we do. However, this is not always the case, and in fact others' views are sometimes diametrically opposed to our own. Because we do not want this to be the case, we try very hard to overlook or deny these differences. As a result, we may develop a blind spot which prevents us from identifying, sharing and discussing our disagreements.

What happens when there is too much tension in a team?

When team members do not have productive and enjoyable working relationships, the team as a whole will be unable to achieve its goals. Factions or cliques may develop, deadlines will be missed, or met without all the parts in place. Unhealthy competitiveness can develop, resulting in behaviors that may sabotage the group's efforts. The prevailing mood will be heavy and there will be a lack of inventiveness and enthusiasm. In addition, team members will probably want to deny these signals, because to acknowledge them suggests collusion. Direct feedback on your observations and feelings about the team's ambiance may help to move things along.

If team members are a fairly homogeneous group, won't that avoid most tensions?

Similarities among team members can create a kind of tacit cooperation, especially if the goal is understood and shared. However, what is really at work in this type of situation is a strategy of avoidance. This is at best a low energy solution to resolving tension in a team, and not a very productive one! A diverse team, full of different interests and backgrounds, will undoubtedly be more dynamic. It may be harder to manage at the start, but the team will ultimately be more high achieving, leading to greater success in the end.

Might tension sometimes be a good thing?

Although many people fear them, conflict and tensions in a team can be extremely creative. So it is neither practical nor desirable to rid teams of tensions altogether. However, it is important to ensure that the tensions lead somewhere productive rather than become disabling. Thus, it is best to confront them with courage—and process!

What to DoIdentify Team Members' Conflict Resolution Styles

There are a number of approaches to resolving tensions among team members, all of which can be useful in helping you get the best effort from your team. One approach suggests learning what style of conflict resolution each person feels comfortable with. These will vary considerably, so you will need to put forth a certain amount of effort, but there are rewards. The more knowledge you have of the individuals you are working with, the easier it will be to negotiate a way forward.

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Killman have identified five main styles of dealing with conflict, each of which falls somewhere between the poles of assertiveness and cooperativeness. They are:

  • Competitive. Competitive people are self-confident and used to getting the results that they want. They are not afraid to use their power to achieve success. This can be a useful style, especially when there is an urgent situation and quick decision-making is called for. However, this style generally has a short life span, because it doesn't allow for individual thought or action, and it eventually stifles creativity on the part of other team members.
  • Collaborative. While this is an assertive style, people who use it will try to get everyone involved, rather than making decisions all on their own. In this way, they are helping the group to achieve consensus. Dynamic and proactive, people who use this technique are generally able to help their team arrive at a mutually satisfying solution by bringing in many viewpoints. Because everyone feels they have helped resolve the problem, there is a long-term positive impact on the team.
  • Compromising. This style of conflict management is useful in situations where the tension is so high that there is a risk of costly, damaging conflict. By encouraging everyone to give a little, differences can sometimes be resolved, at least temporarily.
  • Accommodating. Accommodators will often go to great lengths to satisfy the demands of others, even if it is at the expense of their own needs. While these people may be considered cooperative, they are unlikely to challenge those they consider more dominant than themselves. In the long run, this passive style will probably not lead to the best outcome.
  • Avoiding. People who use avoidance techniques may be operating out of fear, or out of genuine concern for the feelings of others. Either way, they are generally averse to conflict of any kind and will avoid making controversial decisions at all costs. Because avoidance does little to resolve tensions over the long term, this style is generally considered weak and does not contribute much to high performing teams.

Although most of us have a preferred style of conflict resolution, being aware of our behavior patterns and those of others helps us to adapt more readily when the situation demands it. We can learn to flex and change our style if we wish.

Consider Using the Interest-Based Approach

The Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach is another way to tackle conflict. This method respects people's individuality while helping them avoid becoming entrenched in unproductive behavior patterns.

These are the rules of the IBR approach:

  • Good relationships are the priority. Try to remain constructive and treat your opponent calmly and respectfully, even if tensions get high.
  • Focus on the problem, not on the personality. Conflicts most often arise because people's assumptions or values differ, not because anyone is setting out to be difficult. Trying to look at the situation objectively may help to reveal the real reason behind the dispute.
  • Listen attentively and understand the other's view. Make an effort to listen with an open mind to the other's opinion. Without being judgmental, try to understand their views and why they have taken their particular stand.
  • "Receive before you transmit." Once you have heard and acknowledged the other person's position, explain your own without being defensive. Try not to be dismissive of their concerns or scathing in your explanation of why you disagree with their ideas.
  • Establish common ground. After you establish the points on which you can agree, you should be able to identify where your opinions diverge and the reasons for this. Agree on the critical factors that will have the most significant impact on the final outcome, and focus on these.
  • Explore all options. If you are willing to listen to the opinions of others and relinquish your own preferred solution, it is possible to find a third way to achieve your mutual objectives.
Resolve Tension Step-by-Step
  • Create the context. As a team leader, it is your responsibility to intervene when tensions are growing and team members are unable to resolve things among themselves. Outline the situation as you see it and give the team feedback on your perceptions. Encourage assertive communication, and be clear about the rules of discussion, making sure that people take responsibility for what they say. This should ensure that everyone listens attentively and respects each other's opinions. Conflict resolution is not about personalities, it is about process.
  • Bring in all the relevant information. Allow everyone to express their viewpoints, and encourage team members to withhold judgment or intervention until all have spoken. Then let colleagues air their assumptions and offer constructive feedback. Because values and motivations are often at the root of tensions, try to get these on the table too. This can be a delicate point in your discussion, as people often don't realize that their values are not shared by everyone. Focus on the impact of the conflict or tension and explore the consequences of allowing it to persist.
  • Restate the problem. Once you've established the cause and dynamic of the tension, restate the issue clearly so that everyone understands it. At this stage, you are trying to get some agreement on exactly what the problem is, as it may be perceived in a number of ways. You will also need to state what you see as the most desirable outcome and establish some kind of agreement on this.
  • Explore possible solutions. Encourage each person to contribute his or her ideas and take the lead in receiving them positively, even those that sound ridiculous. The most unlikely ideas can sometimes lead to the most creative resolution.
  • Agree on a way to move ahead. Once everyone has made their position clear, tensions often disappear by themselves. However, if you still need to establish a way forward, propose a decision-making process and use this to arrive at the best solution.
Encourage a Culture of Positive Feedback

A healthy team relies on uninhibited, open communication that does not focus on personalities but on the best ways to reach its goals. Encouraging a culture of instant constructive feedback helps to minimize tensions and prevent misunderstandings from building. By developing such an environment, you will help ideas to flow freely, avoid potential minefields, enhance efficiency, and address tensions before they become problems.

Build Team Performance

When tensions are successfully resolved, high performance and strong bonds among team members often result. Times of high conflict are sometimes the defining ones for team members, who will often recall them fondly once they have passed. Indeed, people often look back on their peak team experiences and wish that they could recreate them and have those experiences again.

What to AvoidYou Forget That Tension Can Sometimes Have a Positive Effect

Tension can, under certain well-managed conditions, cause a team to confront its disagreements and improve the quality of its decision making. When this is allowed to happen, the result is often greater team efficiency and effectiveness.

You Assume That the Problem is the Team's, Not Yours

Managers need to be aware that there can be many reasons for serious tensions in a team, not all of them requiring intervention from the team leader. Try to determine the cause of the problem before adopting any conflict management procedures. For example, the team may not be clear on its goals or the responsibilities of individual team members. There may be a lack of sufficient resources or people. Perhaps the schedule is unworkable or the budget too tight. Make sure you haven't missed anything obvious before you interpret tensions as a team problem.

You Don't Emphasize the Importance of Communicating Assumptions and Perceptions

Although a diverse team is rich in terms of its potential, power struggles and behavioral tensions are often rooted in diversity. Too often, assumptions, values, attitudes, and beliefs are the sources of tension within a team. The most common cause, however, is poor communication. When information is shared freely, listening is attentive, and perceptions are shared, there is a much better chance of resolving tensions between team members. Through open communication, everyone knows what part they are playing in the overall aspirations of the team and there is more opportunity for cohesion within the group.

You Try To Avoid All Tension

Every team goes through a period when tensions are high. It is generally referred to as the brainstorming phase of team development. Team leaders are sometimes fearful of this stage, and may want to return to the easier formative period, when everyone is being cooperative and polite. However, brainstorming is a necessary stage on the way to becoming a high-performing team. During this time, team members are encouraged to offer their various talents, skills, and ideas, which can often be used to find unexpectedly inventive solutions and to achieve previously undreamed-of successes. If well managed, brainstorming has enormous potential by making positive use of tension and becoming the catalyst for improved team development.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Belbin, R. Meredith. Management Teams: Why they succeed or fail. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003.

Katzenbach, Jon. The Wisdom of Teams. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership fable. Wiley, 2002.

Web Sites:

MindTools.com: "Resolving conflict rationally and effectively": www.mindtools.com

Innovative Team Building: "Resolving conflict in work teams": www.innovativeteambuilding.co.uk/pages/articles/conflicts.htm

Thomas Killman Conflict Mode Instrument (click on "Psychometric Tools" then "Personality"): www.opp.eu.com/index.aspx