Is conflict good or bad? There are some people who will claim that they’ve never had a cross word with a colleague, and if true, we have to ask how they respond when they disagree with someone. Because as sure as eggs are eggs, at some point they will have felt otherwise; and if the answer is that they bite their tongue, there is a downside.
More often than not, some of the best decisions are achieved through group thought and debate. And if people do not throw their opposing views into the ring, that debate will not occur.
Meredith Belbin was asked by Henley Business School to analyse the significantly varying results his final year MBA students were achieving in a team business simulation exercise. This work subsequently led him to his research into team behaviour and to identify the different roles required within an effective team - a model still frequently used in team development exercises today. Curiously, they found that the harmonious teams that seemed to agree with each other, and had little disagreement, were being out-performed by those teams which had debate and disagreement.
It stands to reason, several heads are better than one, but only if they all put their differing ideas on the table. Yet while there are crew who are more than happy to share their opposing views, if the senior crew don’t have the tools to manage the situation to a productive conclusion, the situation will potentially escalate out of control.
So, while conflict in itself is not bad, the way it's dealt with (or not dealt with) is actually the issue. As one of our recent participants stated: "I found, in the years spent in the industry, not being able to manage and deal with issues has compromised my jobs and relationships, and I have also witnessed others having the same issues. I really felt that learning to deal with the conflict would help to decrease tensions and create a much more productive work environment."
How often have you seen a situation occur on board that needed addressing, only to find that the senior in charge chose to ignore it, hoping the problem would just go away? For sure you need to know which battles to fight to win the war, however generally speaking ignoring the conflict is seldom the best solution. As Sara mentioned in her team article, you can’t ignore the elephant in the room, and if you do, tensions rise, the bickering commences and before you know it, crew are leaving.
There are various potential causes of conflict on board, and many can be linked with breakdown in communications, whether that be work-related or social. Stress and fatigue can cause us to communicate in a way, which with hindsight, we would have chosen to conduct differently. In addition, crew have their own ways of working.
How many times have you heard disputes arising from: “well on my last boat we did it this way….”? Most yachts have a diverse range of personalities and nationalities on board, along with their individual code of ethics. All of these issues need addressing, at times requiring the leaders to be firm and clear of the boundaries and at other times, working collaboratively to achieve common agreement of the standards and working practices on board.
In creating the culture that you want for your yacht (rather than defaulting to the lowest common denominator), senior crew will need to deal with conflict, opposing ideas and simply, inappropriate attitudes and behaviour.
It takes time, practice and self-discipline to become ‘good’ at handling these challenging conversations. Sadly, unlike, for example, navigation, a course will not move you from incompetent to competent in a week or two. However, there are a number of core skills which will help you to become more proficient, along with practice and constructive feedback.
Preparation: start with the outcome in mind
First and foremost, consider what it is that you are trying to achieve. What is the outcome you are looking for? Is it to smooth the waters, or perhaps to gain agreement to working practices? Gather your evidence, don’t be tempted to bowl in until you have all the facts (and not just hearsay – people are prone to exaggeration). Consider how the individual may respond, and when or where will be best to have the conversation.
Being a good listener is key, as arguments often escalate as each person attempts to get their point of view across. It is recommended that you listen with the intention of truly understanding their perspective and summarising what they have said, which in turn proves you have fully grasped their views. Take the time to actively listen to each individual, if appropriate individually and in private. You never know, it may just be a simple misunderstanding. Once they have been able to fully put their viewpoint across, they will be far more likely to listen to you.
Lay down the facts
Be clear concise and objective. What specifically did they say or do, and what was the consequence of their actions? If there were none, then why are you having the conversation? Just because someone chooses to tie their bowline in a certain way that happens to be different to you, so what?
Tempting as it may be, rather than trying to tell them what you want, ask them to come up with some possible solutions. Get as many options on the table as possible, without judging any of them. More often than not, your colleague will have been aware of this issue long before you have, and are most probably thinking about potential solutions too. People are far more likely to heed the advice and actions they decide for themselves than any raft of suggestions you may have to offer. Compromise can work too, and if you still can’t reach an agreement of how to complete a task, try both ways and objectively evaluate both before coming to agreement.
This is perhaps the most important part of the process, without which, after a few days, people will tend to revert back to their old ways. Agree a date and no matter how busy you are, make the time to have that follow-up conversation.
Impact Crew has been specifically created to support Superyacht Crew in the challenges of leading and working as a team. Contact us to find out how our onboard workshops can reduce conflict and help develop your crew into a high performing, harmonious team.
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