A simple trick to nip conflict in the bud on your team

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I've worked with many teams like yours and one of the biggest mistakes I've seen and want to help you avoid is not recognizing conflict early on. We may say to ourselves it’s just a difference in opinion - or kid ourselves into thinking it will just go away. When you miss the golden opportunity to address conflict prior to escalation things get much more complicated.

It may sound simple but the key to an effective response is understanding the difference between disagreement and conflict.

A disagreement is a minor contrast in opinions. As defined by the Oxford dictionary, a disagreement is a “lack of consensus or approval.”

Wondering how this looks on a team like yours? Let’s say, for example, your assistant coach brings donuts after each game as a treat. As the head coach, you think fruit would be the healthier choice. You believe in a holistic approach to athlete development and think nutrition is a strong component. You’ve gone so far as to hold several team seminars on the importance of healthy eating. You are mildly irritated but ultimately give in to your desire for a honey cruller. This is a disagreement.

Conflict, on the other hand, is a disagreement with emotion attached, and generally for an extended period of time.

In the case of our example, conflict occurs when the donuts are a part of a series of events that leads you to believe the other coach is undermining your leadership and authority. This causes an emotional reaction. Perhaps in addition to the donuts, there have been requests to change practice times to a time that you are not able to attend due to your day job. Perhaps you’ve been challenged when you’ve made some hard choices around a starting line-up.

This is the stuff of slow burn—the makings of conflict.

The significant difference between disagreement and conflict is that conflict takes active work to resolve.

Once it’s there it doesn’t go away, no matter how much you try to ignore it. Think of any longstanding beef or conflict you’ve seen. It can go on for years. Sometimes people even forget what they’re mad about…but they’re still mad. The narrative can change just like in a game of broken telephone: There are he-saids and she-saids about the details, reinforcing the emotions that fuel the fire. Having children myself, I’ve seen things happen between girls when they are in elementary school—a friend being left out by not being invited to a party or on an outing—and the feelings of hurt are still there at the end of high school. Conflict goes on until one person takes the first step in resolution.

Sports teams don’t have this kind of time. High school and collegiate seasons are often over within three or four months. For some teams, years can pass with long-standing conflict affecting the performance of the athletes who are caught up in the drama of it all.

The moral of this story? Be a conflict detective. The next time a disagreement happens on your team watch closely - then take these steps:

  1. Ask yourself is there emotion attached?

  2. If there is - clear some time and set up a meeting to talk about the issues.

  3. A week later have a follow-up meeting to .

Stay tuned to our blog next week: the 4 steps to having a successful tricky conversation!


Nadia KybaComment