Adapted with permission from this article on The Camp Whisperer.
Staff conflicts happen. When your company is going through change, conflicts can happen frequently. But our first instinct is to maintain the peace. We don’t want to hurt anyone, we don’t want to create problems. And so people try to pretend conflicts don’t exist. And by the time we realize we need to speak up, the issue has exploded. Tensions are high, and containing the conflict is a challenge.
As leaders, we need to make space for conflict.
We need our staff to know that we expect confrontations, and actually prefer them to avoidance. Our staff members need to see us practicing the skill of confronting people when necessary, and doing so in ways that are constructive and helpful. We need to make struggle, difference, and frustration normal parts of working with groups. Because they are!
Let's stop pretending group work is easy.
First, let's have frequent times for people to voice problems. If we make it normal to talk about problems, especially before they've developed into anything serious, we can prevent them from growing too large to handle well. But as mentioned above, people hesitate to mention little things because they don’t want to seem without grace or understanding. You'll have to set the example.
Second, let's ask staff to share at least one problem a week (or day or month). We may ask our staff if they are struggling with anything; this question typically will illicit very little information. Set an expectation that everyone share something that isn’t going as well as they would like. Do the same. Make this a normal part of your company interactions.
Last, tell your staff what they could be doing better. Make sure they know you appreciate and value them, but consistently share the areas they could improve. This shouldn’t be daily (that would be really frustrating), but possibly weekly or monthly; give them just one or two small things that you’ve noticed. Doing this will make it more comfortable for them to reciprocate. Be prepared to accept criticism with grace and humility.
These three tasks are designed to help your staff become comfortable with dealing with the elephants. Make avoidance harder to accomplish, and dealing with the problem more natural. Every problem will not be solved, but you'll get a lot closer to a trusting and well-functioning team.
How do you deal with the elephants in the room?