Conflict Resolution

Is your Team Hiding Behind Masks?

Cheryl Mann asked:

Halloween is a time when many adults (oh yes, and kids!) dress up in costumes and masks to disguise their identity on October 31 in celebration of this holiday. But, donning masks is not just limited to Halloween.


When I first begin work with a team, I often find that many team members don “masks” that they hide behind in their communications and interactions with their team members. In other words, they are often afraid to be “real” with their colleagues – they are afraid to speak their true thoughts/feelings because it might create conflict, or because their organizational culture supports “sugar coating the truth” instead. Or, sometimes team members don’t feel that they can safely speak these truths for other reasons, so they hide behind a mask of not speaking up at all, which seems less risky to them. I typically find that this hiding comes from teams who do not currently have any written team agreements about how they will communicate and interact with each other, and sometimes I also work with teams who have “unwritten agreements” where they have never talked about it but have basically agreed to never speak about issues that could cause conflict.


By comparison, when I work with teams who have created explicit agreements with each other regarding how their team will interact and communicate with each other, those team members are much more likely to be REAL with their colleagues – they speak their true thoughts and feelings, and know that their voices will be heard, because the team has created agreements that support a “safe space” for those diverse opinions and thoughts to be discussed/explored. Whether you refer to these types of communications as “robust dialogue,” “speaking about the elephants in the room” or something else, we’re talking about the same thing — speaking up about issues or concerns that are impacting the team.


From a team dynamics perspective, this place of being “real” and proactively encouraging discussions regarding issues may be perceived as conflict – but is actually the healthiest place for a team. Why? Because a team that has enough trust, respect, camaraderie and the ability to navigate conflict is a team that will get results and will also be sustainable, because they have a solid foundation to do so. By contrast, teams who are not able to have these types of discussions often are not sustainable. They are simply not able to rise to that “higher level” to yield the results that they could, because their performance is hindered by the limited dynamics they have become mired in; thus, they are not performing at their optimal level.

Think about your personal life. Are the more meaningful and effective relationships that you have the ones where you keep the discussion at a high level and don’t talk about things that are truly important to you? Or, are the more meaningful relationships that you have the ones where you talk about very important aspects of your life (including your deepest feelings) and really challenge each other to be better people? In my life, I appreciate and encourage people to challenge me so that I can learn more about myself and continue growing to be the best person I can be in this lifetime.

The same is true with teams. The more your team challenges each other to learn and grow and bring up whatever is on their mind, the more successful they will be and the longer they will be able to maintain success.

Here are some questions and tips for you/ your team to explore:

1. What does your team typically experience in the categories above – “Masks” or “Real/Robust Dialogue”? Think back to your three most recent team meetings. Were team members holding back, or “sugar coating” their words? Or, were they speaking about what was really on their minds? And, if team members were speaking their minds, how was the rest of the team responding – were team members encouraging more dialogue and trying to get a better understanding of the diverse opinions, or were they trying to shut down the discussion?

2. If your team typically lives in the “Masks” world, what do they need to be able to move into “Real/Robust Dialogue” more often? If your team does not already have team agreements for their interactions and how they will handle conflict, this is the place to start. Creating team agreements should be a carefully facilitated discussion that includes all of the aspects above plus much more, so that the team creates as much openness among team members as possible and has clear parameters for moving forward (including accountability to their agreements).

If your team already has team agreements and is still living in “Masks,” then your team’s agreements need to be updated to specifically incorporate how they will handle issues of potential conflict. Your team may also need some help with conflict resolution skill building and practice, so be sure to look at:

– Do they know HOW to work through conflicts and are just not doing it? OR

– Do they need to learn the skills to work through conflict? (honestly, this is what I see more often than not, which is why we often teach teams how to work through issues)

3. How is your team using its agreements? Once your team creates its agreements, there are many ways to integrate this into daily work life. For example, I am working with a team in Rancho Cordova, CA who printed out a poster size version of their team agreements and each team member signed the agreements as their commitment, and then the entire poster was framed and mounted in their workspace as a reminder of their commitments to each other! Another team I am working with in Burlingame, CA reads their team agreements prior to every meeting, and when a team member breaks an agreement, pays a monetary fine. There are many more examples of how different teams work with their agreements, but the important thing is that the agreements are

(a) Created and “owned” by the team, and

(b) Reviewed regularly, and

(c) Monitored/supported by team members who speak up when they see an agreement being broken.

4. What obstacles are preventing your team from implementing these tips above? It is important to have candid conversations with your team about the specific things that are getting in the way of your team being more effective in their communications and interactions. By taking the time to explore these ideas with your team NOW, your team is much more likely to be more effective now and in the future!


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