Signs of conflict give us vital information about our groups. They come in the form of behaviors. Most of us have observed these behaviors and engaged in some ourselves. I know that I have done so countless times. These behaviors can be typical responses to a group reaching a transitional stage of group development. If we watch for these behaviors and come to understand them instead of judging them as good or bad, we can seize upon the information they provide and the opportunity they present to our workgroup. The opportunity to change a cycle of unaddressed conflict and move our workgroup toward new possibilities.
1. Difficulty in Getting Things Done
The task may seem simple, but its completion doesn’t come easily. Revising the group’s bylaws becomes an arduous chore fraught with disagreement. Launching a project with clearly defined objectives falls seriously behind schedule. A task remains incomplete without a good reason and recurs multiple times on the agenda. Issues that some thought were settled pop up again and again. Members direct their behaviors toward distractions rather than toward goals. People feel irritated, question why the task is taking so long, and pressure builds for the group to perform. Sometimes the group successfully ignores the task so long that other priorities eventually push it off their plate…to sighs of relief!
2. Group Members Aren’t Participating
People vote with their feet. If group members become dissatisfied with a group’s progress or feel powerless in the face of conflict, they find ways to be absent. They also vote with their voices. They go silent. They abstain from expression of thought.
Often a substitute behavior takes hold. Instead of members fully participating in meetings of the group, they take conversation offline and speak to one another in private about group issues. Or do an end-run to avoid the group’s gridlock.
3. Guarded Behaviors Become King
Guarded behaviors protect us from the vulnerability of expressing hidden assumptions, unpopular thoughts, and our own heart’s desire. We cross our arms, slump in our chairs, look at our phones instead of each other, and stealthily roll our eyes. Once when I was a staff analyst and became totally frustrated in a group meeting, I flopped my head face down on the table top. (This did not get a good reaction from my boss who let me know afterward that he was displeased with my behavior.)
We use sarcasm, talk about people not present, intellectualize, and bottle up or project our scary feelings onto others.
We often act out these behaviors unconsciously. By becoming more observant of ourselves and others, we can raise our awareness and learn to read the road signs of group conflict. At least we’ll know where we are. At best, we’ll recognize we now have an option. Next week I’ll explore the idea of reframing group conflict to ourselves and others.