HR Executive: Why Conflict Debt is Crushing Teams

HR Executive: Why Conflict Debt is Crushing Teams

February 22, 2024

J. Richard Hackman, a psychologist who pioneered the study of teams in the workplace, once said, “When you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary. But don’t count on it.”

At their best, high-performing teams can make better decisions, take on more complex work and achieve results beyond the sum of their individual team members’ capabilities. But most teams feel less than magic lately, and we have seen that teams comprised of brilliant individuals are unable to produce even a fraction of what their members could accomplish alone. Why?

In his recent contribution to Human Resource Executive, AIIR Consulting CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner explains why teams are struggling to pay down the conflict debt they have accumulated over the past few years, and explores three things team leaders can do to help their teams pay down the balance.

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What is Conflict Debt?

Conflict debt, just like financial debt, is the accumulation of unresolved conflict over time. In our environment of complexity and continual change, conflict is inevitable. But, analysis of data from the AIIR Team Effectiveness Survey shows that, rather than addressing problems as they happen, teams are allowing conflict debt to accumulate.

How Can Leaders Help Their Teams Clear Conflict Debt?

Confronting conflict debt is hard. It’s messy, emotionally draining and it doesn’t always end with a neat resolution. But it is the only way teams can maintain the level of performance companies need to succeed. Here are three ways team leaders can get started:

1. Confront Conflict Directly and Constructively

There comes a point on every team where it becomes impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. But, here’s the thing about that elephant: It took time to get that big and left unaddressed, it will only get bigger.

2. Share Feedback

There are two truths about feedback: (1) It is one of the most effective ways to grow, and (2) Nobody likes giving or getting it. Leaders are responsible for creating team cultures where feedback is is readily given and received.

3. Set and Reset Expectations

Leaders must be sure that team members know what is expected of them, even if what is expected changes from day-to-day. If team members aren’t sure what is expected of them, feedback will likely feel unexpected. Conflict is certain to be especially unproductive when one party feels like they are being treated unfairly.

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