Your team is most likely like most teams on this planet, don’t you agree? What I mean by that is that you experienced – to a certain extend – that working together can at times create tension between team members. Wherever people live or work together, conflict is bound to come up. Sooner or later we’re going to get on each others nerves, it’s part of (work)life, to my opinion.
So if tension is part of working together, the next question is: can we deal with that tension in a constructive way? Yes? Then, how do we do so?
The most common answer of people is something like this: ‘Yes, there is tension in our team, everybody knows it’s there. But we don’t talk about it, we don’t want to create a conflict.’
Talking about interpersonal tension is hard, we’re the first to admit it. It’s scary to bring up something that might trigger painful feelings among team members, or – who knows, a full blown conflict. Most of us prefer harmony in the team. The result? Nobody talks about the elephant in the room.
Here are 5 reasons why we think it’s essential to talk about elephants.
1) When ignored, tensions grow bigger, not smaller
According to the Austrian professor Friendrich Glasl, interpersonal tension tends to escalate to more severe levels of conflict over time, when they are not dealt with. It’s important to address elephants when they are still small, when the probability of finding a win-win solution is the highest.
2) Talking about the elephant can bring relief
After having that scary dialogue about the elephant, people usually feel relieved. Pretending that everything is ok when it’s not, can take up a lot of energy. Being able to honestly say what’s on your mind or heart can be a load of your shoulders.
3) Tension is a great opportunity to strengthen connection
If team members manage to work through interpersonal tension or conflict in an open and transparent way they will have learned something important: the relationships in the team are strong enough not to be damaged by differences of opinion or temporary conflict. This experience and awareness fosters a lot of safety and trust in the team.
4) Conflicts are great ways to get to know each other better
At the root of every team conflict are unmet needs of individual team members. When we can clarify together which underlying needs are at stake for each one of us, we gain a lot of insight in what’s important for our colleague team members. We get to know each other on a deeper layer than we might normally achieve.
5) Double-loop learning
After the tension is resolved, there is a lot of interesting stuff for us to harvest, as a team. From a meta-perspective, we can learn a lot from it: how can we bring up the elephant even quicker next time? What agreements could help us to prevent tensions from affecting our collaboration in the future? If we see it as a learning opportunity, resolving conflict feeds directly into a healthy team culture.