Dealing with Team Conflicts

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As adults, we are used to conflict. Whether we are at odds with workmates over product issues, settling disputes between members of our household, or working with a committee of parents to plan graduation activities, there will always be some level of conflict. But as adults, we have developed the skills necessary to deal with conflict in a calm manner.

I spent a large part of my career in human resources, and believe me, I have seen more than my share of workplace conflicts. But fifth grade was a long time ago for me and all my years in the workplace did not prepare me for what happens when you put two boys and five girls on a Destination Imagination (DI) team. Nothing at work ever came close.

We were entering our second year of DI. Our first year was very successful. We only had two teams and both placed at our Affiliate Tournament, with one of the two advancing to Global Finals. Participation skyrocketed in year two. With so many new students coming in, teams were reorganized to allow students to work on their preferred Challenge.

Our first year was pretty conflict free. Truthfully, I think that because everything was new to the team and Team Managers, it created some group panic but never any real conflict. But the game had changed with new teams. We had three experienced team members. Four members were new, and two of them were boys.

Our first meetings were terrific. The veteran teams and Team Managers shared stories and experiences and talked about the Rules of the Road and Interference. The skills they learned the first year were evident, and they did a great job getting new members up to speed. But a few weeks in, when the playing field was a little more level and we had advanced to working on the Challenge, things started to get a little dicey.

At the beginning of the year, our team developed a list of rules to help keep meetings and work flowing smoothly. It included things like listening to others and using time well. It also included a rule that disagreements would be settled by vote. With seven team members, they didn’t have to worry about a tie and voting is fair. But it didn’t take long for the two boys to realize that the five girls had formed a coalition. And thank goodness they did because those girls were starting to run roughshod over those boys. Generally, they were able to work things out without more than a reminder reread the team rules or to question the girls on whether or not they were being fair. But one day, it all came to a head.

The arguing was increasingly getting worse and now they were arguing over every little thing. Tiny things like what color the lettering on a sign should be or if individual notes had to be typed. Everything was an argument and it was getting heated. Voices were raised. Pouting ensued. There were some tears. So I finally stepped in and told them there would be no more work done on the Challenge until they could come to a solution about resolving problems. After much discussion, they decided that when things were getting bad and people were getting upset, they would have a code word anyone could say and everyone would recognize it was time to calm down. They decided on “bubbles” because “you can’t possibly be angry when you say the word bubbles.”

So they began their work and it was not long before they encountered the first conflict. “Bubbles” I heard from across the room. And then laughter. Everyone calmed down and went back to work. “Bubbles.” This time a little louder and with a little more feeling. No genuine laughter this time. I could see some glances exchanged and some not-so-happy faces. But they continued working. But the next time I heard the word “bubbles,” it was said three times in a row, each time louder and longer than the time before. In case you were wondering, you CAN be angry when you say the word “bubbles.”

So we had a long talk about the “bubbles” experiment. It was this lesson that taught them that voting was the best way to handle issues when at an impasse. However, trying to come to a compromise first was far more important. They also realized that many of their arguments had little impact on the Challenge. They had wasted time and energy and allowed conflict to remove focus and waste time.

It was such a good lesson for them. To this day, the team laughs when they hear the word “bubbles.” There are still conflicts, but they recognize that if it is something they feel strongly about, it is worth a calm discussion. It helps that they are older and more mature. But like all things DI, the learning is as much in the process as it is in the end product.

Oh, and this team that had so much fighting they had to have a code word? They took second in state, won a Renaissance Award for teamwork (seriously!?!) and competed at Global Finals courtesy of an Affiliate wildcard.

About the Author: Jackie Kindred is a five-year Team Manager. As a semi-retired nonprofit and human resources executive, Jackie focuses on helping her DI team, volunteering at school, and enjoying life with her family in the Kansas heartland.

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