hands in a team huddleCassidy was recently promoted to supervise an operations group. Soon after taking the job, it becomes abundantly clear to her that two of her employees aren’t speaking to each other. Each one has garnered their own supporters within the group, creating a hostile work atmosphere. Cassidy’s manager tells her this dysfunctional team conflict has existed for months and that one of the reasons she was selected to lead the group was because of her good communication skills.

“We’re counting on you to solve this issue,” he tells Cassidy. “Do whatever is necessary.”

Cassidy nods and assures her boss she’ll handle it. Inwardly, she’s shaking with fear. She’s never faced an entrenched conflict like this before and doesn’t know where to start.

This week’s guest article on Achievement Edge Training goes into a detailed approach that Cassidy or you can use to deal with exactly this situation.

In the article, I explain the costs of unresolved team conflict to people and the organization. I then lay out a proven step-by-step guide for turning the tide on a chronic conflict and re-energizing the work team.

I show you how to get buy-in to changing from the dysfunctional status quo to a happier and more productive work place. Implied in the process is the importance of optimism and staying focused on the desired future result NOT the past.

Go ahead and read it if you’d like. I’ll still be here when you finish to talk about optimism and what it has to do with conflict.

Why is optimism important in a conflict? 

“A positive outlook is the most important predictor of resilience,” so says Emily Esfahani Smith in an The Atlantic article.

My but don’t we need resilience when dealing with a particularly challenging conflict? Resilience, adaptability, flexibility–these are all characteristics that help you find the opportunities in whatever challenges you’re facing. Dysfunctional conflicts call on you to be creative and open to new ideas for solutions that work for everyone involved. They require you to believe that this is possible and believing in the possibility means you’ll do it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Optimism is seeing the reality as it is while remaining hopeful that a positive outcome is possible. Pessimists tend to focus on the negative and believe the worst outcome is the most likely.

Focusing on the negative, on what bothers you and on past problems get in the way of being able to change things for the better. Esfahani Smith cites a study saying that venting and focusing on your anger or other upset feelings makes people feel worse. This is counter-intuitive, right? Isn’t expressing feelings supposed to be cathartic? Help unblock negative energy? Create an atmosphere of openness and honesty?

Only to a degree and for a limited time. What is truly important is being aware of how you feel, learning to own your feelings and developing skills to handle your emotions in a mature way.

Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has done research that proves the mental and physical health benefits of optimism. Did you know optimistic people live longer and more happily than pessimists?

Addressing conflict effectively requires energy, creative thinking and forward momentum. An optimistic outlook helps with that.

How can you be optimistic when there’s bad blood and an entrenched conflict?

Allow me to reverse that question: assuming you’ve decided you can’t leave the person or situation and that something has to be done, how can pessimism help? Yes, you do want to see the situation as realistically as you can. Seeing people as they are and not how you’d like or fear them to be is important. What do they care about? How do they see this situation? What’s in it for them to hang onto the conflict? What are they protecting?

Taking into account the context, culture and history can also help you more clearly assess the key components of the conflict that have kept it alive for so long. If you can find out what the original inciting incident was that might increase your understanding but it’s not the most important factor toward seeking change.

The most important factor is wanting the change. Committing to it. Once committed, you are on a search for what is possible and that’s a great start. That’s what optimism looks like in this context.

Ten tips to help you bring your optimism to the forefront.

Can a born pessimist ever become an optimist? Can you bring your optimistic self forward even after you’ve been beaten down by shouting and arguments and losing battle after battle?

According to Dr. Amy, professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University, you can teach yourself optimism habits. She suggests ten things to do. They are:

  1. Pay attention to times you are negative. Track them. Notice if there is a pattern. (You can also take this short test to see where you come out on the optimism/pessimism spectrum.) The key is to increase your awareness.
  2. When you find yourself saying something negative, think of the positive side of it. This is to get away from only negative-thinking habits.
  3. Examine negative thoughts by writing down the evidence in support of and against it.
  4. Look for the positive aspects of any situation.
  5. Prepare a “what would ____do?” Think of someone you know with a positive outlook and ask yourself what she or he would do in a particular situation.
  6. Look for what people are doing right and tell them.
  7. Give yourself credit for what you are doing well.
  8. Figure out why you’re pessimistic–how is it serving you? How is it not serving you and getting in your way?
  9. Try on positivity as you would a new pair of shoes. It might pinch a little at first but gets more comfortable.
  10. Practice. Practice. Practice.

So now, if you haven’t yet, go ahead and read the article at Achievement Edge Training and see how I apply optimism to transform a dysfunctional team conflict.

Where do you sit on the optimism/pessimism continuum? How has optimism helped you cope with a difficult situation? How might pessimism serve you?