Advice & News

May 13, 2022

Stop Your Team from Settling for Compromise Solutions


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What distinguishes a well-functioning team from one that merely gets by? One variable is its ability to work through conflict. Does the team persist amidst disagreement to achieve positive results, or does it continually settle with short-term compromise solutions that ultimately unravel, leaving team members dissatisfied and faced with the same tensions as before?

A dysfunctional pattern emerges when team members continually opt for compromise solutions and lack the wherewithal to push through to achieve collaborative outcomes. It takes time and drains what little energy we may have to establish the trust, understanding, and commitment needed to achieve true collaboration, especially when relationships have deteriorated due to unresolved conflict. Nonetheless, knowing work must get done and that we are accountable to others, we will plod through to achieve a measure of cooperation to complete common work goals.

Imagine being a team member in this scenario. Your best ideas and the opportunity to do your best work are diminished by the unenthusiastic, at best, and openly hostile, at worst, reactions of teammates. They may, of course, feel the same about you as all fail to find a way forward that brings out the best of your ideas and contributions. After struggling to produce something you can at least live with, if not feel good about, and doing so because it is expected and not for any intrinsic value, you end each workday exhausted, sad, even angry.

Who wants this? As a leader, it's time to stop settling just to get by and help the team push through to achieve collaborative results. Consider these strategies:

Determine the Level of Intensity and Frequency of the Conflicts You Observe and Respond Accordingly
In The Conflict Survival Kit: Tools for Resolving Conflict at Work, Cliff Goodwin and I provide an intuitive framework for considering whether conflict between team members requires the leader to intervene or to allow them to work matters out on their own:

  • Routine Daily Events: Monitor conflict situations involving routine arguments and agreements of low intensity that team members appear able to work through on their own. Stand ready to support them but otherwise let them work through their differences.
  • Evolving Conflicts: Team members appear less capable of handling their conflicts which are becoming more intense. Intervene as needed through hands-on training, coaching, dialogue facilitation, or other processes within your skillset to help them more directly address their conflict and prevent escalation.
  • Deeper Conflicts: Conflict intensity has moved beyond what is healthy and productive. Intervene promptly, either to engage in responses within your authority and skillset or seek support from external resources such as HR, a skilled mediator, employee assistance, ombuds office, etc.

As noted, some conflicts take care of themselves. Let them. Otherwise, consider whether your support would be helpful to bring team members out of the funk of ongoing, unproductive conflict.

Choose Your Battles
Not all conflicts require intervention, even when true collaboration seems unlikely. Compromise isn't always a problem and, in fact, may be warranted when the battle for achieving something more isn't worth the investment. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument assesses preferences for responding to conflict along five modes: accommodate, avoid, compete, compromise, and collaborate. Collaborate is at times referred to as "win-win" while compromise is a moderate form of "win-win" where parties haven't achieved their goals fully but are able to move forward cooperatively to achieve reasonably satisfactory outcomes.

Compromise may be fine where quick, albeit temporary, solutions are needed, or when the goals to be achieved are moderately important and the time and energy needed to achieve fully collaborative outcomes isn't available or feasible. Daily tasks and routine projects often require compromise in which agreeing to disagree is best for the sake of avoiding arguments, maintaining peace, or preserving what goodwill exists between parties. Even projects and plans that ultimately require true collaboration because of their long-term impacts on productivity, overall team and organizational success, and constituent satisfaction may involve interim compromise steps along the path to completion.

Conversely, leaders must step in to help team members develop more collaborative mindsets when compromise becomes the uncomfortable norm, tensions simmer below the surface and seem likely to erupt, or team members' inability to work together positively, and productively, continually impacts team interactions and the accomplishment of important goals.

Move Team Members to Collaboration
Collaboration requires consensus which requires time, and energy, for the team to first reach a shared understanding of what the problem is before they can meaningfully implement a solution. Compromise runs contrary to consensus because it forces team members to reluctantly begin implementing a solution that they never felt had integrity.

When this occurs, management consultant Bob Kantor recommends encouraging the team to acknowledge there is a problem and "check for shared understanding in order to move forward together." It is not time to propose solutions or prove who is right and wrong. Instead, "request that discussion first focus on learning as much as possible about the situation, with each team member sharing their understanding about what the situation is, why it exists, and what it's impact is." The team shifts to "inquiry mode," asking extensive questions to develop understanding before beginning to explore solutions.

How is this facilitated? Stephen R. Covey, author of The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems, advocated breaking from "your way - my way" thinking that ends either in continued fighting or unsettling compromise and engaging in "our way" thinking and problem solving. "Just go up to your 'opponents' and say, 'Are you willing to look for a solution that's better than what either of us have thought of?'" The parties then agree to a "simple" ground rule to "always restate the other party's position to his or her satisfaction before stating your own point of view."

The "simplicity" of this approach may be up for debate but is certainly something I strive for in mediation and that leaders can pursue to defuse conflict and encourage shared understanding. A few "simple" sample statements may help illustrate how to keep team members focused on collaboration:

  • To express appreciation when they do collaborate: "I really appreciate your efforts. I know it's difficult. But look at what we've achieved so far just by talking things out."
  • To interject hope when progress is being made: "You've both made great points and shown understanding of the other's viewpoint. Keep it going. I'm convinced we'll find a path forward."
  • To encourage looking beneath the surface to help break through to collaboration: "This issue seems important to you. Would you mind sharing more? It might help others understand why you've been reluctant to agree at this point."
  • To challenge consideration of what may be lost if they don't collaborate: "We've had a few meetings now, and it's been tough. I'd like to hear from each of you what may happen [or what may be lost] if we don't move forward more productively. Please give this serious thought."
  • Conversely, to "sell" the opportunities to be gained if they do push through: "I'd like us each to think about what a successful completion of this project will look like and what it will mean. I have my ideas, but I'd like to hear your thoughts first. It's too important to give up now."
  • To encourage continued exploration when they want to jump quickly to solutions: "You've suggested some good ideas. Hold on to them. I'm not sure we've come to a full understanding of all the concerns yet, then we'll get back to them."
  • To remind them you are there to support them: "Look, if you get stumped, I'm here. Please bring me in when you have another stumbling block like this."

Covey also said, "Compromise has a good reputation, and it's probably prevented many problems from getting worse." Yet, it ultimately results in "lose-lose." "People might walk away from a compromise satisfied but never delighted. The relationship is weakened, and too often the dispute just flares up again." Consider how you can move team members from compromise to collaboration whenever the gains to be achieved outweigh the time and effort needed to engage in the necessary struggle to get there. And then struggle to get there.

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