Improving Teamwork by Resolving Conflict: Using Start-Stop-Continue

How do you handle peer conflict within teams? What about between leader and staff? What do you do when engagement is low among the team?

I’m sure there are times when you have two staff members who just don’t get along. Perhaps they snip at each other or try to always have the last word. They won’t answer each other’s email. One member thinks the other doesn’t pull enough weight. The staff are now complaining about their leader and productivity has gone down because of it.

One structured approach to resolving behavioral conflict between people is a simple process called Start-Stop-Continue. It is easy to remember and can even be conducted in the moment when the tension is rising. Or, it can be during a planned or facilitated meeting with a little more formality.

The first step is to introduce the reason for the meeting. Explain that it is often helpful to put structure to a difficult conversation, which helps employees refrain from “beating up” on someone and allows the conversation to remain professional.  This format also allows for action items and is the foundation for follow up conversations (check-ins).

For example, let’s imagine there is a team of employees complaining about their manager. The employees have been to HR several times or even taken their concerns to their manager’s manager. And, the tension is still increasing. The team may also have low engagement scores if there is a lack of trust in the manager’s ability to resolve this or other complaints.

When you meet and first introduce the structured format, then ask, “What do you want your manager to start doing?” Don’t be discouraged if employees are quiet at first. It sometimes takes a little while for them to warm up and once they do the flood gates will open.  You may also experience staff going straight to what the manager is doing wrong – all of their complaints come out. Be prepared to patiently listen and paraphrase their complaints back to them in a ‘theme’ format. Some of the complaints can be restated into “Starts”. For example, if staff tell you “our manager doesn’t share any of the new guidelines that she receives from the insurance companies, we are always finding out after the fact.” You can ask the group, “do you want your manager to start sending you the notices by email?” And then, you have the first thing the manager can start doing to improve team performance.

The stop section is very similar to the start one. You ask the group, “What do you want your manager to stop doing?” By then, you have probably heard many complaints when you get to this. So, sometimes, it is easiest to summarize and ask if there is anything else. Other times, a skilled facilitator may try to generate a few more ideas.

The continue section can be challenging because the group is tasked with identifying what the manager is doing well. So, at this point, ask “What do you want your manager to continue doing?” It is often a short list but that’s okay because it is always best to end with a positive note. Be sure to tell the group that you will not share specific comments or who said what but rather will provide the manager with themes and maybe one or two anonymous sample quotes.

It is important to be prepared to give the manager feedback about start-stop-continue and to help him or her identify the low hanging fruit and quickly implement the changes. Moving quickly will speak volumes to the staff. It is also important to go back again and again and again to keep the communication line open with staff. Ask them how the changes are going. Does it have as much impact as they would like? What else would they like to see changed, within your sphere of influence that would help ease the stress and tension?

This exercise can also easily be modified so that you can conduct a start-stop-continue between two peers.  You can meet with each separately and then bring them together or keep it simple and go straight to having the three of you meet. It is important that each walk away with no more than three action items that they are committed to start doing. Again follow-up conversations are key.  Sometimes peers can recover from conflict and other times one ends of leaving the team. Both situations will move the team forward toward reducing interpersonal conflict and improving team performance.

By: Elizabeth Franz


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