In last week’s blog we visited a team meeting in an imaginary organization. Stephanie had begun to comment on a product concept. Fred cut her off and launched into a brief attack against the quality and timing of her input. Last week’s main point was that such an attack or expression of personal criticism can be a strategy for avoiding conflict.
If Stephanie or someone else does not assert herself (or himself) with Fred, the team may lose the value of what Stephanie has to say and make a mistake marketing the new product. The team is likely to benefit from hearing Stephanie and Fred engage in their differences over the product.
There is another dimension to this moment of criticism or attack on the team. Fred’s dissatisfaction with the timing and quality of Stephanie’s feedback is also a valid topic for discussion. The team is at a momentary crossroads over what to focus on – the product concept or Stephanie’s feedback. So, which should the team focus on? My response is neither – at least at first.
Instead, the first response should be an exchange – hopefully brief and initiated by anyone on the team – regarding when to speak about each topic. Both are important, but the focus depends on the purpose of the meeting. If the purpose is the product launch, then Fred’s dissatisfaction with Stephanie could be put to the side while the team focuses on her concerns about the product concept. A retreat or quarterly planning situation on the other hand is an ideal time to address the timing and quality of Stephanie’s input on product design.
Here is how such a first response might sound: “Let’s hear Stephanie out, even if the timing is not ideal; it’s too important an initiative for us to be off the mark. Let’s wait to talk about how we give each other feedback at the retreat.”
The challenge at the original meeting is to notice that a second topic has arisen and to track it. A team can miss out by not having both conversations. It needs to hear the differences Fred and Stephanie have over the product concept. The team will also benefit from supporting Stephanie and Fred in communicating over Stephanie’s input into product concepts. The team members can learn from Stephanie and Fred’s situation and come to an enriched collective understanding of how they wish to provide critical input in any situation.
The only way to ensure both conversations happen is for someone to explicitly make note of them and suggest when each could occur. This practice of informal tracking and scheduling topics is a conflict management skill. If Fred knows that his complaints about Stephanie will have an airing, he is more likely to be open to hearing her criticism of the product concept. If Stephanie’s controversial views are respected, she is more likely to listen to feedback about when and how she provides her perspectives. The team is then able to gain the benefits of both conflicts.
A conversation about a product concept is a task conversation relating directly to team responsibilities, whereas how input is provided relates to group process and working relationships. Noticing and working with these two types of topics – task and process – are central to a mediator’s work. I will explain in next week’s post how you can learn to be a more effective team member by attending more to your team’s group processes.