First, the good news: We're all different people with unique talents, abilities, and personalities. And now for the bad news: We're all different people with unique talents, abilities, and personalities—which often clash. Sometimes the results of all these personalities working together are great. Other times, especially under high pressure, they aren't.
As a startup founder, I’ve had to mediate quite a few clashes on teams careening toward total dysfunction. Here's what I've learned about getting things back on track.
Not every conflict is the consequence of personality differences. Sometimes it has to do with opposing points of view, where neither side is willing to compromise. Other times, there are outside pressures on people's emotions that spill over into the workplace. And other times still, limited resources, management's expectations, and the sheer amount of time spent together can turn an otherwise high-performing team into a toxic one.
As a manager, it’s important to find out what's causing the clash before you roll up your sleeves to try and fix it. And it's important to do this fast. It isn't always just one person on the team who's making mayhem for everyone else; it's often a handful of team members butting heads—and making everyone's lives harder. So the sooner you can pinpoint the main culprits, the sooner you can address their concerns—which, in turn, means the sooner you can solve the team-wide problem.
Some managers prefer a hands-off approach, and leave their team members to sort things out themselves. In my experience, that's more often a bad move than a good one. Better to call out the clash early so everyone can get past it sooner.
Once you've applied the brakes, it's time to get everyone to agree to communicate about the conflict—even reluctantly. Some of the most damaging misunderstandings tend to be about issues other than what individual team members think they're fighting over. And you can't figure out what those are without hashing it all out. Managers need to moderate these conversations so they stay as rational and orderly as possibly. Sometimes that means setting some guide rules, so opinions can be shared rather than fingers pointed.
Talking it out also requires active listening. This way, your team members can understand the context for the friction that's been building up, not just their own experiences of it.
By now, tempers should be calmer than they were at first, making this the time to remind your team members why they're collaborating with each other in the first place. Ideally, the goal of all that teamwork—even the most frustrating parts of it—is to achieve collective goals they couldn't by working solo. And they all realize benefits from pulling it off.
Point out to your team members that while they don't necessarily need to agree (or even like) one another all the time, they still do have things in common—like wanting the company to succeed—that can help them move past petty differences. It’s not about them individually; it’s really all about the company’s success, which each team member's individual success relies upon.
Because the team exists to help the company, those who clash will need to start thinking about what type of compromise they each need to make. When both see that they have to give something up in order to create peace for the team, the conflict may suddenly not seem as important as it once was.
On one clashing team, I agreed to make a sacrifice along these lines after this became clear. I gave part of my task to the team member I was butting heads with. It was a peace offering that quickly took away the tension between us. And I was surprised to find how it benefited me, too; I had more free time and less stress, so I was relieved to give up part of a responsibility I'd originally wanted to take the lead on by myself. After that, we both got along with each other, and the whole team dynamic improved.
Another time, I decided to invite a colleague I was clashing with out after work to see if talking outside of the work environment would help us work through things. This helped quite a bit. We both got to know each other better and in a different way, and by the end of the evening we were laughing together like old friends. This camaraderie actually stuck with us the rest of the time we worked together. It turned out all we needed was time alone to get to figure out where we each were coming from.
This may not resolve every difference of opinion, but sometimes encouraging your team members to step away from their work in a more relaxed atmosphere is exactly what they need to gain some perspective.
Even though teamwork is the emphasis, the experience of working together too much in a confined space might not work well. There's often a limit to the amount of collaboration that's productive and useful, and that limit may not be the same for everybody.
Close proximity may mean that it’s better to build different shifts into the workday to reduce the level of interaction certain team members are likely to have—and with it, their likelihood of conflict. It may sound extreme to separate certain personalities on your team, but when things are veering off course, this may help give everybody the breathing room they need to excel.
This divide-and-conquer approach has proven useful in some of the teams I’ve managed—even if only as a temporary solution. It’s been true when they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder; in this case, anyway, it simply helps people get along better when they aren't forced to get along so often. And even if it's a temporary solution, it can help
I’ve been on teams where everything on this list has been tried and more, but the reality is that the team chemistry is just wrong. It can get better simply by reassigning one team member and replacing them with someone with better competencies, values, and collaboration skills for the level of teamwork you're looking for. Clashes are bound to happen, and sometimes it's just better to make a change than pour time and resources into making everyone get along.
Ultimately though, each of these steps falls under a common theme: The goal is to take a positive, proactive approach to dealing with the conflict. Punishments, threats, or harsh tactics simply don't fix dysfunction. If anything, it only makes the conflict worse—at a time when the first thing managers need to do is contain it.