What Can Leaders Do When Team Members Spar?

Teams by nature can be very vulnerable to different members’ styles of communication. And one of the surest ways for a team to become dysfunctional is for a leader to be unaware of their members’ communication interactions. Recently, there was an article written in Harvard Business Review by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins that discussed passive-aggressive behavior amongst co-workers. They discussed the frustration of a peer agreeing to an idea at a meeting and then ignoring their commitment. I have witnessed this type of “swing behavior” as I am sure you all have at one point. But is there anything a leader can do to either prevent or alleviate this disruptive communication style and behavior?

One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to be able to lead a functional team. Remember, without followers there are no leaders. To do this successfully, leadership requires strong communication skills as well as setting a great example. Here are some helpful tips to exercise while your team jibs and jabs:

1.   Be a clear, assertive communicator: When meeting with your team make sure you state your expectations clearly and honestly. You might want to ask them to restate the team goals so that you can see that everyone has the same understanding of what is the direction you are all moving.

2.   Be an active listener: It is so important to understand what is really the hidden message behind some of the sparring on the team. To get that message accurately, leaders need to listen without interrupting and then ask questions to get to the bottom of the issues.

3.   Address the problem, not the person: When the passive-aggressive team member starts to switch around what they agreed to, speak to the issue, not the personality of the individual. Instead of calling the team member “unpredictable” or “a loser”, focus on what task they cannot follow through. According to Su and Wilkins in their article, “don’t waste one once of your energy trying to figure out why they act this way with you”. Focus on the issue at hand that needs changing.

4.   Model the right way: In all your interactions, make sure you lead with integrity and transparency. By accepting choices that your team decided upon, even though they were not your first choices, is a sign of a professional. Being able to compromise and execute the team’s decision is your way of showing the importance of teamwork and the value of each member.

So leaders these are some strategies that may help you lead more effectively when the team challenges you. Do you have other techniques that you could share?

4 thoughts on “What Can Leaders Do When Team Members Spar?

  1. All of the strategies you pose are good. Going back to what you said at the beginning of your post about having a peer agree to an idea at a meeting and then ignore their commitment, I have a few suggestions. At the first meeting, you could ask folks what problems they might encounter with committing and brainstorm ways to deal with those issues. After the first meeting, you could send out meeting minutes to everyone detailing the decisions made. You could start your next meeting by reviewing the decisions made at the previous meeting, ask if anyone had problems with keeping those commitments, and facilitate a discussion on ways to help that person. If a peer still does not commit, I suggest meeting with him or her privately to understand why.

  2. Hi Judy,
    First of all, thanks for stopping by to read my blog. I think your idea of brainstorming ways to deal with commitment issues is a terrific one. When an entire team can be part of a solution, the end result will lead to a more successful conclusion. I appreciate your thoughtful ideas.

  3. I see a deeper rooted problem here.

    What set up the culture where there was not open communications to start and why is it allowed to persist?

    Where the two people so diametrically opposed that they they were not the right choice for the team to start?

    I understand your response and agree with it but it is a typical reactionary response. I feel it calls for further investigation to eliminate the problem.

  4. Joseph,
    I appreciate you taking time to read my blog. Thanks for your insightful comments. Sometimes going too deep can be counter productive. Addressing the issue at hand can be most helpful for a team to progress forward. I do support your ideas though.

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