How Leaders Settle Disputes in a Team
As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to maintain an orderly environment. This means listening to and mediating disputes that may arise (some of which concern themselves with the mission, but many more of which are personality-centered) and eliciting the cooperation of your team members to get them to cooperate when they are feeling torn apart from the group by their own concerns. You also need to get team members to act like leaders by asking them to place the needs of the mission above their own.
Your first question in settling any dispute should always be, “Is this about the mission or about people?” Many disputes come to you in the form of “Joe is impairing the mission because he’s taking too much personal time while the rest of us are sitting here working our butts off trying to find an answer to this vexing problem.” Before you come down on Joe, here’s what you need to do:
- Review the work of the team members to try to find out why they are having difficulty.
This may sound counterintuitive, but it isn’t. Make Joe’s presence at the team meeting that you’re attending mandatory, as an indication to the team members that they can talk about the problems only in terms of structures — no personalities allowed. If someone insists that Joe’s absence is the problem, do not ask Joe to defend himself. Ask that person to demonstrate specifically that Joe’s absence has caused a missed deadline or inferior work, or has in some way damaged the mission.
The kinds of questions you need answered are, “What exactly is the problem that cannot be solved?” “Is Joe’s presence critical to the solutions?” “Is this a team comfort issue or is it a mission issue?” You can determine quickly whether it is a “Joe” problem — that he is not really pulling his weight — or whether some larger issue exists.
- Find out whether you can supply the team with more resources.
Because your role as a leader is to keep the team moving toward its goal, helping the team members by getting more resources or by rethinking processes accomplishes that. If resources aren’t the issue, work with them to help them rethink the problem.
- Then and only then talk privately to Joe.
Find out why he has been taking excess time away from the problem. If he has a legitimate reason, you can change his responsibilities — assign him to a different team or give him the time he needs to take care of his personal issues. If his reasons are not legitimate, you can still take whatever action you deem appropriate without harming the mission or the goals.
Concentrate on solving problems. Avoid assessing blame.
Your next question should be, “Is this an essential problem?” Many times, problems are brought to leadership solely because team members want to be assured that their problems — and they — have the leader’s attention. The problem isn’t significant enough to warrant the leader’s intervention, but if a team member or a group is feeling neglected, the problem becomes magnified.
This is where “leadership by walking around” comes in handy. If you make it a point to visit regularly with each group and ask about progress and problems, instead of waiting for trouble to come to you, you reassure people that you have their best interests and welfare at heart.
Your final question should be, “What will it take to get this problem fixed?” You should put that question back to the group and encourage the team members to come up with a solution, and then work with them to make the solution a reality.
Often, groups will take the easy way out and answer, “Give us more resources.” Your first response should be, “What have you done to solve the problem with the resources at hand?” and “Is there any guarantee that if I give you more resources, the problem will be resolved?” Make the team members prove their case, and if they cannot, sit down with them and go through a rethinking process.