In the previous episode I discussed some negative management traits. These traits can open the door to more disagreements happening within teams. Now, on the surface, disagreements are fine. They happen all the time, at every level of an organization, within any team. In fact I’d say that if you’re in a team in which there are no disagreements, then that’s bad. It suggests that you as a manager may be signaling to your team that you don’t tolerate disagreement, so your team is afraid to voice their opinions. Or maybe there’s a kind of a group-think, that everyone thinks so alike that there are genuinely no disagreements. Neither one of those is ideal, but they’re another topic for another time.
Right now I want to focus specifically on disagreements that escalate. When more disagreements start happening, it’s easy for them to snowball into conflict. Conflict itself is an intense disagreement between people, generally over a longer period of time than a disagreement, showing some kind of…incompatibility between people. You know the difference. You can…kind of feel it when there’s that change from disagreement to conflict. Like think about the last time you somewhat disagreed with someone – could be at work, your personal life, wherever. Now compare how you felt then to how you felt when you really disagreed with someone, to the point that maybe you felt negative or irritable even after you were done talking with them. That’s conflict. A disagreement that sticks with you, gets under your skin, and doesn’t let go.
A disagreement, to me, is kind of more…superficial in a way, not as strong of an emotional feeling. It’s often just “I don’t agree, but okay, we’ll go with that plan” or “I’d like to explain why I disagree with that idea.” But with a conflict, you do start feeling those emotions, which can then make disagreements spiral into anger, aggression, disengagement, and a variety of other counterproductive work behaviors and mindsets.
Just like disagreements, conflicts will occur in any organization. You may have witnessed one recently or even be part of one right now. The important role you play as a manager is how you handle, react to, and manage those conflicts.
I’ll be going over three topics throughout this episode. First is the mishap of poorly handling conflicts within your team. Second is the mystery of the GAP model of conflict. The third and final topic is the mystery of how best to respond to conflict using the GAP model.
Conflicts can be managed well and not so well. Healthy and unhealthy conflict, functional and dysfunctional conflict. I wanted to briefly focus on some factors that are not so good when it comes to conflict. As I go through them, reflect on whether you’ve seen them in action, maybe as a bystander, as a manager within your team, or your own manager toward you.
There’s all different kinds of stages in the conflict process. For the sake of keeping it focused, I’m going to stick with two stages: in the moment, and afterwards. In the moment is when the conflict has bubbled over into being felt and expressed – it’s not just “Uh oh, something might happen here,” but rather “Oh, yeah, things just got tense.” Afterward is when the conflict continues even after words have been exchanged and people go their separate ways, like after a meeting, after a chat in the hallway, after a video conference.
One aspect of in-the-moment conflict is insensitivity. This is when someone isn’t being sensitive to another person’s feelings, opinions, or beliefs. Now, there’s a huge difference between disagreeing with someone’s opinions and beliefs, versus attacking, undermining, trivializing, or making fun of those opinions and beliefs. As I said earlier, I view disagreements as more superficial, like, say, the surface of the planet, whereas conflict gets deeper, like the core of the planet where things get much hotter. Certain beliefs, feelings, and ways of viewing the world are a core part of who someone is, and drilling down from surface disagreement to hit the core means conflict.
Another in-the-moment aspect is rising tempers. The previous factor of insensitivity can be driven by ignorance or intent, whereas tempers flying is more emotional. People use harsh words, get pouty, rapidly withdraw and disengage from the conversation, shout, get tunnel vision, all that stuff. From those tempers, people can also get increasingly stubborn and defensive about what they said, framing a conversation like a battle that has to be won instead of an opportunity to understand and compromise.
The other side of the coin is after the moment. One aspect of this after-the-moment conflict is frustration. This piggybacks on the in-the-moment aspect of rising tempers. There’s that saying of “cooler heads prevail.” That taking time to breathe a bit, let off some steam, can put you in a better frame of mind to have healthier, more meaningful conversations. If a conflict is handled poorly in the moment when it first arises, heads likely won’t cool, and tempers can turn to frustration, annoyance, and even shorter tempers in future meetings and conversations.
That frustration can fuel another aspect of after-the-moment conflict, which is relationship tension. This is especially dangerous within teams because this tension can make things feel awkward and perhaps decrease team productivity. It opens the door to trying to build allegiances within a team, putting teammate against teammate, of not helping teammates as much or at all, sometimes even as extreme as sabotage, keeping others out of important meetings or conversations, things like that.
So far you might wondering: okay, we’ve explored some aspects of conflict, but where’s the manager mishap? Well, as a manager, conflicts are handled poorly when you let things continue, hoping they’ll just naturally work themselves out. Or that you let things continue because you simply ignore it by not addressing the elephant in the room. Or the worst possible way of handling conflict is if you yourself exhibit the behaviors listed earlier. Because when you do that, you’re showing your team that those behaviors are allowed, acceptable, or won’t be punished, and this opens the door for a toxic team environment.
The main takeaway from this first section is that it’s actually pretty easy to poorly handle a conflict because there as so many aspects of conflicts to be aware of. And by not being aware that a conflict is happening, ignoring it, or contributing to it yourself, you’re setting up a recipe for toxic teamwork.
So I just reviewed some ways in which conflict can be poorly managed, and even then that’s just the tip of the iceberg for how complicated conflicts can be. What I haven’t yet reviewed is why conflict happens in the first place. That’s an important piece of the puzzle.
You might think “Well, wait, if a conflict is already happening, it doesn’t really matter what started it, I should just work on ending it.” I agree that the conflict should be managed toward ending it when it happens, but knowing what started it can offer guidance for higher quality, healthier conflict management. As well as better understanding yourself and your team, and then your team better appreciating your leadership skills. Ultimately what we want is healthy conflict resolution, and I believe the GAP model of conflict helps with that.
GAP is an acronym that stands for goals, assumptions, and personality. The GAP model is a way to think about why a conflict may have occurred based on those three factors, which may make it easier for you to uncover the misalignment, the gap, between people and then help settle the conflict, to bridge that gap.
The first factor is goals. From the highest level, organizations are made up of goals. Goals to increase their customer base, revenue, sales. These goals get more intricate when we look at department-level goals. Like a marketing team and a sales team might have some overlapping goals, but there’s still a lot that are different. Then we get into specific teams. At the team level, everyone often has similar kinds of functions, so goals are often strongly aligned. However, even then individuals can have different outcomes of interest, different priorities. Could be based on their specific job, their own ideal for how the team should grow, how they themselves want to develop, more self-serving, and so on. When two people have clearly different outcomes in mind for a particular plan of action, each individual’s own priorities can blind them to compromise or wanting to understand the priorities of whoever it is they’re disagreeing with. They get tunnel vision on what’s most important to them at the time, blocking out what’s important to others around them.
The second factor of the GAP model is assumptions. Broadly speaking, an assumption is the belief that something is true or accurate. Assumptions are guided by our unique worldviews and perspectives, so everyone’s assumptions are different. And the fascinating thing about assumptions is that they’re often taken for granted. I assume something is accurate because I believe it, and because I believe it, everyone around me should believe it too. Which means, because everyone should believe it, I don’t have to mention or talk about my assumptions. Assumptions are almost fundamentally a recipe for conflict, especially when those assumptions aren’t made clear to others. How often have you heard someone say the phrase “I just assumed…”?
The third factor of the GAP model is personality. Personality relates to differences in how people think, feel, and behave. So that’s a pretty broad topic. Are you quiet, extroverted, responsible, impulsive, confident, shy, aggressive. There are hundreds and hundreds of characteristics that make up you and who you are as a person. And these personality traits can shift depending on where you’re at, who you’re with, and what you’re doing. With all of these moving parts in just one person, it becomes unreal just how complex interactions between people really are. With that complexity comes a chance for friction. Of personalities not meshing, either completely or in certain instances or when talking about specific topics. An individual’s personality guides how they approach and respond to disagreement, and sometimes they’re guided toward conflict.
The main takeaway from this second section is that conflicts are often caused by, or made worse by, differences in goals, assumptions, and personalities. Being aware of those differences is what I believe to be the best first step toward managing and resolving conflict in your team.
One thing I want to clarify is that I’m not suggesting that misalignments in goals, assumptions, or personalities are the only reasons conflict occurs. Instead, these are what I’ve noticed as being the main drivers of conflict. I mean, technically speaking, the main underlying reason for conflict is poor communication. But that is such a huge topic and can occur in so many different ways that it didn’t seem valuable to focus on that as a conflict management tactic.
With all that said, I do believe one of the better ways of responding to conflict is to bridge the gap between peoples’ misalignments, by understanding what is being poorly communicated or understood.
One step is to make sure you’re in tune with conversations that your team has during meetings, in emails you’re a part of, or wherever you can engage in active listening. Or active reading, in the case of emails and texts. This step is all about awareness, especially when you notice disagreement. The first step of almost anything is to be aware of it, and conflict management is no different.
Look out for, be aware of, the insensitive remarks, the snippy or snappy emails, the raised voices, the rising tempers. If you notice these, keep note. You shouldn’t pounce on every little instance of increasing disagreement, otherwise you’d be jumping around all day and you’d be censoring your team, likely making too big of a deal out of something that’s not going to escalate. However, when those things do happen and you take note of them, keep those in the back of your mind to track if they get worse. This tracking can be literally seconds, like someone talking with a raised voice who then all of a sudden yells, all the way to days and days across a number of emails. It’s the escalation part where you need to jump in, to see if you can calm people down and create a more level-headed conversation. That’s why it’s important to stay in tune with conversations, to ensure you intervene when necessary.
When de-escalating the situation, it’s important to aim for balance, calmness, and consideration. Of letting each person have their equal share in discussion, without one person interrupting, ignoring, or making dismissive gestures while the other is speaking. This is where the GAP model comes into play. If you think the conflict is related to goals in some way, have them lay out those out – what they wanted from the conversation or the meeting, or what goal they had in back of mind when the disagreement escalated.
When it comes to assumptions, you could directly ask what each individual was assuming, such as what they assumed the conversation or meeting was about – which overlaps quite a bit with asking about goals – or what they assumed the other person was thinking, feeling, or expressing. Bringing assumptions to light can sometimes offer a lot of insights about how a disagreement escalated, and talking about those assumptions instead of the content of the disagreement for a little bit can calm people down.
The last part of the model, personalities, isn’t as straightforward as the other two. It’s not like you’d ask someone “What is it about your personality that made you act that way?” That sounds…well, too much like a psychologist, and takes the conversation too far away from the topic at hand – resolving the conflict. Instead, this part of the model is something for you to be aware of during conflict resolution and when asking questions of your team members. Like if someone who’s more direct and talkative is in a conflict with someone who’s often quieter or maybe even shy, that gives you the cue to ensure the quiet individual isn’t talked over by the other person. As a manager you are a mediator of many things, and when working with people you have to be mindful of their personalities and individual quirks so you can be a better mediator and facilitator, especially during high-tension situations like conflict and conflict de-escalation .
This de-escalation stage is about containment, to try and contain and resolve a conflict in the here and now and not let it boil over and fester into a potentially toxic working relationship. The GAP model is short, easy to remember, and starts with asking the question “how can we bridge the gap that happening right now?”
The main takeaway from this final section is that the GAP model of conflict offers a way to think about why conflicts begin. You can then use those principles of why it began to kind of reverse engineer that escalation, that increased disagreement, with your team members. The GAP model is kind of a triage – it addresses the three most likely reasons for conflict, but always keep in mind that misaligned goals, assumptions, or personalities are not the only reasons for conflict.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed that conflicts are handled poorly when they’re ignored or not addressed, that the GAP model of conflict suggests that misalignments in goals, assumptions, and personalities are common reasons for conflict, and that you can use the GAP model to contain and resolve conflicts.
On our website we have a resource titled how to handle conflict in the workplace. If this episode has piqued your interest about conflict management, which I hope it has, then that resource would be good to check out. It has some checklists, as well some post-conflict reflection questions, which I’m always a fan of.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss miscommunication.