In every thriving workplace, there are small triumphs every day. Deals are done. Customers are served and satisfied. Goals are met and even exceeded. But there is also conflict, strife, and failure.
Teams can use conflict as an opportunity for growth, but they first have to understand the root of the conflict and how to productively resolve it.
Conflicts often arise or escalate due to differences in perceptions. Coworkers can be part of a shared experience, yet view it differently because of the unique lens they are looking through – their personality. When misunderstood, team members’ differing viewpoints can contribute to further misalignment and tension.
Understanding how perception can impact an individual’s responses and learning to appreciate others' viewpoints can help teams better resolve conflicts and stay aligned for continued growth.
Understanding the Perception Puzzle
Alex, Barrett, Craig, and Devon make up a successful account team at FocusCreative, a mid-sized advertising and marketing firm. The team just lost an important client to a competing agency. They hold a meeting to determine the next steps and disagree about how to move forward. Let’s consider how each member’s perception shapes their responses and influences the conflict.
Alex is an account manager, and her personality is that of a doer. She is action-oriented, and likes to get things done and move projects forward quickly. She tends to be energetic and decisive, and she needs people around her to be direct and logical.
As a doer, Alex considers the immediate impact of the situation. What is the loss of this client going to mean to the firm? To her team and to her personally? Because her nature is to do something, Alex wants to take some action that can deliver tangible results. She sees value in objective conversation, so Alex wants to reach out to the client to better understand their decision to switch agencies.
She feels confident that honest, constructive feedback can help the team perform better in the future. But Alex’s reflex to immediately do something can frustrate the teammates who need more time to process events before getting comfortable with a plan of action.
Barrett is the team’s creative director. She is also a thinker. She is highly cerebral, likes to innovate and design campaigns. She is also thoughtful and insightful, and she requires patience and support from the people around her as she arrives at her decisions for next steps.
Being a thinker, Barrett dwells on the future implications and possibilities of having lost a significant client. Barrett recognizes the situation as a setback, but she also views it as an opportunity to consider what the team could do next to create long-term value for the firm. Having more bandwidth now, are there new markets and clients they could pursue? Barrett doesn’t want to take any immediate action, but rather engages in subjective conversations with teammates and colleagues, asking insightful what-if questions and pondering their various responses before formulating a plan.
Barrett’s teammates usually appreciate her thoughtfulness and methodical approach to projects, but in a crisis they can become impatient, perceiving her to be too slow to respond to the problem at hand.
Craig is the team’s account manager, and the communicator of the group. He is extremely people-oriented, and he uses his mastery of language to skillfully persuade and sell his ideas and the firm. Craig can sometimes be assertive and competitive, and he needs visibility. He also likes praise from his coworkers and variety in projects.
As a communicator, Craig considers how situations impact various stakeholders – his superiors, his teammates, colleagues, and subcontractors that work on the account. While he sees the ripple effects of losing a long-time client, he also views the loss as an opportunity to be optimized. Craig actually sees this setback as a chance to do something new and different, so he is eager to move upward and onward.
Sometimes Craig’s teammates perceive his competitive style to be abrasive – that is especially true when everyone is so stressed out. Now, as Craig talks about pursuing a new opportunity, some of his coworkers feel he’s being opportunistic rather than helping them bounce back as a team.
Devon is a project manager, and very much an analyzer. That means he’s highly analytical, thoughtful, and detail-oriented. Devon needs order and he likes having time to concentrate on a task. He also craves consistency, so change can be a stressor for him.
As an analyzer, Devon perceives the loss of the team’s largest client as a risk to be mitigated. His inclination is to gather more information and prefers one-on-one conversation. He wants to be able to define the team’s mistakes and identify where the team failed to deliver consistent results for the client.
A few on the team are feeling especially sensitive after losing their largest client, so they receive Devon’s analytical input as finger pointing rather than constructive feedback.
Resolving Conflicts Productively
Before too long, tensions rose among the FocusCreative account team. Frustrations and anxiety led to blame and harsh words. When conflicts arise due to different perspectives, there are some concrete steps teams can take to ensure it’s a healthy conflict:
Define the situation. This might seem obvious, but in working together to identify the core issue, other underlying problems may present themselves. For now, focus on the issue at hand.
Share individual perceptions of the situation. Individuals should be honest about their take on the situation, including both fears and preferred paths forward. Team members must remain open to all perspectives, with leaders fostering an environment of psychological safety that encourages transparency.
Reflect on what you can learn from others’ points of view. Don’t rush to judgment. Take time to consider what lessons can be learned from colleagues’ perceptions and takeaways.
Act by determining how to move forward in the same direction. Realign as a team to agree on a course of action and a common path forward.
Teams are not successful because they never have conflict. They are successful because they come together to constructively resolve conflicts despite their different personalities and perceptions.
To understand how perception might influence conflicts on your team, explore the insights of the Birkman Signature Report.