How to build trust with a team that is in conflict

The first thing to do is to remind your team that conflict is quite normal. A team that doesn't experience any conflict tis probably not working as a team at all.

How to build trust with a team that is in conflict

The first thing to do is to remind your team that conflict is quite normal. A team that doesn’t experience any conflict tis probably not working as a team at all. Helping the team understand the nature of trust will also help. Tell them there are two types of trust ‘ cognitive (based on perceptions of others’ competence and alignment to expectations you have about the tasks you share) and emotional (based on levels of kindness, support and benevolence you experience from them). Together and in abundance we can create profound levels of inter-personal trust.

Let’s start with cognitive trust. Virtually all the conflict I have seen in 25 years of working as a team development consultant emanate from this kind of trust which is based on different sets of expectations that exist between team members. At Team-Up we have identified 3 sets of conflict reducing expectations that all sit in what we call the ‘Get Set’ phase of teaming.  Here you are building predominantly cognitive rather than emotional based trust by helping the team ‘get on the same page’. Cognitive ‘same page trust’ is easier and quicker to establish, especially in more extreme, pressurised contexts in which most teams operate in. The pages to align on are (in order of root cause impact on each other):

Expectations about the ‘Mission’ of the team (its purpose, vision and goals) 

Expectations about the ‘Plans’ of the team (its high level strategy, roles and responsibilities and immediate priorities)

Expectations about the ‘Disciplines’ of the team (the target norms it stands by, it’s meeting cadence and it’s reward mechanisms for working as a team) 

In one global transformation team the purpose of the team was not agreed. Some members felt it to simply transform the organisation, whilst others felt it was to do as much transformation as was possible given the budget they were given. This difference led to different expectations about the goals, cost management reporting responsibilities, and how they spent their meeting time. This led to serious amounts of inter-personal conflict, which was the point at which I was called in to help. A lack of this root-cause cognitive trust was undermining relationship-based emotional trust. When the team took the time to actually agree on their purpose, goals, roles and meeting agendas they found their conflict reduced significantly. 

Making agreements and ‘getting on the same page’ in the Get Set phase is your trust building starting point but, as was the case with this transformation team, dealing with conflict doesn’t stop there. You have to then build the emotional trust via boosting psychological safety. So after aligning expectations in the Get Set phase, move onto the Get Safe phase and ensure your team demonstrates buckets of 

Vulnerability (saying how you feel, admitting what you don’t know, apologising and asking for help)

Empathy (listening, supporting, being sensitive to the needs of others)

Learning (treating mistakes as learning opportunities. Developing a feedback culture)

A great way to do this is to run retrospectives on how the team is working together. These are open feedback discussions on what the team is doing well, could do better and what can be actioned straight away. I recommend a feedback discussion like this monthly for 20-30 minutes. 

Our regression analysis from the data of twenty five teams, many of which are virtual, confirms that more vulnerable teams are more empathic and therefore better learners which in turn makes them more adaptable and better at building constructive rather than destructive tension. When the team is able to have constructive rather than destructive tension it has progressed nicely into our third phase of teaming ‘ Getting Strong.  Here the team has constructive rather than destructive tension and profound inter-personal trust is built.

Two golden rules to abide with in this ‘Getting Strong’ phase are

‘Talk to each other not about each other’.  Be careful as team leader, you don’t act as the ‘rescuer’ but rather a facilitator of discussions. Don’t tolerate team members moaning about each other. Tell them to speak directly to each other. 

Discuss differences without emotional charge. Getting angry and emotional won’t help. It may sound paradoxical, but encourage the sharing of emotions out not in an emotional way. 

In summary, if you apply the Get Set ‘Get Safe ‘Get Strong code you will be building trust in the quickest way possible.

George Kaseras
George Kaseras

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