Managing conflict is a natural and necessary part of successfully running a business. Challenges like tense partnerships, dysfunctional meetings or flaming e-mails plague all types of businesses, from boutique service firms to global manufacturers. Entrepreneurial striving brings its fair share of strife.
If you’re not experiencing at least a few robust disagreements within your business, take a look at your team dynamics. Are you surrounding yourself with driven, intelligent people who care about the success of the business more than keeping you comfortable? If not, some healthy conflict might be a nice addition to your startup team.
But when patterns of disagreement become repetitive and entrenched, conflict begins to feel bigger than the team, or even the business itself. It hangs in the workplace air. Effectively resolving a conflict situation requires understanding its primary source. As a startup consultant, these are four common sources I regularly see and effective solutions for each:
1. Confusion about the superordinate goal
Because a startup is a kind of ongoing experiment, there will be days when uncertainty reigns. The scaffolding that you thought was guiding your project can disappear. I have seen a lot of conflict situations that are mostly due to uncertainty and disagreement about where the startup ship is going and why.
Solution: Effective startup founders continuously and repeatedly articulate the startup’s higher-level goal, and they understand how various players and stakeholders relate to that mission. For your team and your organization, you must answer the questions: Where are we going? Why? What’s most important right now? The answers to these questions will shift over time; take Bo Burlingame’s advice and "find a hill"on a regular basis.
2. Clashing personalities
When I get calls from prospective clients to deal with a team conflict, they often attribute it to a “personality problem.” Although this is too often assumed to be the case when it’s not, sometimes personality does play a key role. The problem can be because a team member’s values and behaviors are misaligned with the rest of the team or because two or more individuals are caught up in dysfunctional behavioral patterns rooted in differences in how they communicate, how they act or even how they see the world.
Solution: Personality makeovers don’t work, so don’t expect to permanently shift someone’s basic personality structure. They key is to raise awareness of how personality differences play a role in the ongoing difficulties. Then, determine what changes will optimize the situation relative to the business goals. Reconfigure roles and/or assignments so that they play to team members’ strengths and skills.
3. Structural factors
Structural factors within an organizational environment can pit parties against each other. Nearly every business model contains pinch points, where a natural tension exists between functions or roles. For example, in lending businesses, there is a natural tension between salespeople who typically want to maximize loan volume and the underwriters who want to protect the credit quality of every loan. Another example is when two leaders are assigned as codirectors of a business unit without clarity about how they will make decisions together.
Solution: Assess how the structure of your business either encourages the alignment of goals and interests, or creates natural tensions between certain roles. At a minimum, have an open discussion with the team about how roles might be reconfigured or redesigned and how to build greater awareness of how the various roles relate to one another. This will help achieve a healthy tension rather than dysfunctional conflict.
4. Substantive disagreement
Sometimes well-meaning, intelligent people simply disagree on how to solve a problem or which alternative to choose. There’s no fog, disabling personality differences or misaligned structure–just never-ending debate around a tough decision.
Solution: The key to effectively working through substantive conflict is having a clear process for how issues will be discussed and how decisions will be made. The most effective teams have threaded skillful conversation into the fabric of how they operate. Of course, this practice is developed over time and can’t be immediately installed once a conflict has flared up. In its absence, a skilled facilitator might be necessary to help team members work through difficult conversations and decisions.
John Bradberry is CEO of ReadyFounder Services and author of 6 Secrets to Startup Success (AMACOM, 2011). He helps entrepreneurs and their ventures improve performance and achieve healthy growth.
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