Managing Conflict Within a Tactical Team

Conflict is neither good nor bad.

Managing Conflict Within a Tactical Team
By: Barry Touart

The word conflict seems right at home when discussing a police SWAT team. Conflict is the very reason there is a need for these types of teams. Without conflict, particularly dangerous “high-risk” conflict, there would be no need for an agency to undertake the massive dedication and expense of fielding a specialized team of this nature. 

The personnel that make up these teams are typically the best representatives of different areas of their respective agencies. Tactical teams usually have some type of process where one must demonstrate they are worthy of being a member of the team. They must prove they are accurate and proficient with various weapon systems, physically fit, quick to make life-saving decisions, while possessing an above-average ability to think fast and respond to extremely dynamic situations. 

Finding this person is a problem that most teams must deal with. Getting this person to work smoothly on a team with people just like them is a problem that every team must deal with.  When you put so many strong-minded people together, it is inherent there is going to be conflict between them.

The Communication Research Associates say, “Conflict is neither good nor bad. It simply is!” This may be true, conflict is the condition, it’s not good or bad, but its consequences can severely erode the foundation of this type of team. 

The first step to resolving conflicts on a team is to expect and understand just which types may occur. Most experts agree there are seven general classifications of conflict. The first four are the ones commonly encountered on a tactical team. The four classifications commonly encountered are Content, Decisional, Material and Role.

Content conflicts involve perceived differences over facts that can easily be discovered. For instance, two people arguing over today’s date can easily be resolved by finding the correct date.  This type of conflict can come about in a tactical team since there is typically more than one correct response to a situation. This is where competing team members may disagree on a tactic and are able to articulate specific reasons why.

Decisional Conflict is usually the result of a decision we have to make for ourselves. A simple decision to serve or not serve on a team is an example of one. An intrapersonal conflict requires the team members to be honest with themselves while evaluating their feelings and considering their options. Most team members have a usable life. No two are the same, and there are many internal and external factors that can contribute to the length of useful service one can contribute. 

Sometimes wisdom and experience can be substituted for physical ability and stamina and vice versa. Decisional conflicts are very common on a team, because each individual member must choose to be in this line of work as only a person who wants to be there can be counted on.

Material conflicts are exclusively interpersonal and involve competing for a limited resource.  On a tactical team, there may be some competition for a limited number of the newest weapons or equipment being issued. I have personally seen this type of conflict escalate to the point where a team member quit due to this becoming a severe intrapersonal conflict.

Role conflicts involve disagreements in the role expectations between two people. This is something that can be taken literally in a tactical team since each and every person on the team has a specific role or two on any given mission. While roles and assignments may be specific, the problem with tactical operations is there are usually many different ways to effectively complete a mission. 

Operators are taught early on that there is no “one” way to do something. If there was one right answer for every situation, there would simply be a tabbed book with all of the solutions in it. Until such a book of complete SWAT answers exists, there will be times when each person must be given a specific job to complete with a little discretion on how to do it. This type of specific direction may eliminate some types of conflicts at a command or team level and get the team working together by putting the issue to rest.

The issue of there being no one right answer is the very root of the most commonly encountered conflict on a tactical team, task-focused conflict. Nelson & Quick define task-focused conflict as conflict that occurs when team members cannot agree on ideas, opinions and decisions about group goal achievement. This is where the leadership must work together to keep this type of conflict from becoming destructive.

Task-focused conflict, like conflict in general, is not necessarily negative, especially in a business that routinely preaches there is more than one right answer. This type of conflict can actually be constructive in that it may provide for a better way of accomplishing a given task. That is how a team evolves and becomes better, by constantly evaluating its tactics to see what can be improved on. Ensuring this conflict is constructive requires the leadership be open to dialogue from each operator and they can agree, as a group, to support and employ the new idea or plan.

One of the fastest ways to divide and weaken a team is to have division among the leadership. If the commander, team leaders and assistant team leaders are not on board with a particular idea or plan, then there is certain to be division among the line members of the team. This can prove fatal in a life or death situation that is rapidly evolving with each step that is taken deeper into a building. If the leadership does not 100 percent support something, how can one expect the actual operator to literally stick his/her neck out for it? This type of problem causes doubt in the minds of the people who do not have the luxury of being able to do so.

Being open to suggestions at all times is the other key component to managing this conflict. As a leader, you must be able to admit you do not know everything and you do not have all of the answers. Doing so is the first step to ensuring a safe environment for everyone on the team. It is from here where a leader becomes open to suggestions and the various questions that routinely come up during training. 

Given the proper environment, team members will likely pose some interesting questions or ask about a certain tactic. Some newer members may pose the same questions that have been asked many times before them and will learn from your explanation of why their suggestion is not a good one. 

There are times when a team member will make a suggestion or ask a question that has never been asked. This suggestion or question could very well change the way the team operates from that day on. Again, teams must constantly evolve to stay alive. This type of conflict can actually be what perpetuates this evolution, proving what has already been stated, that conflict can be good and constructive.

Conflict in any business where people are employed is a constant. Managing this conflict is the key to being a good leader and a way to shape conflict into a constructive force. Managing conflict in the high-risk business of SWAT means you are doing so in one of the most volatile and dangerous environments that can be encountered. Many a SWAT officer has been told “if it was easy, everybody would do it.” 

The same holds true for the leaders. This is not a job that you can just be given or have passed down by attrition. You must be ready to battle conflict head-on. Conflict will come at you as friend or foe and it probably will not wait until you are ready. Just like the people you lead, you have to quickly recognize which side it is on and make an immediate decision. 

Does this conflict pose a threat or is it harmless? This rapid assessment followed with an appropriate action can make the impending conflict a good experience for the team—a constructive experience that can benefit the entire team as well as you as their leader.

Barry Touart is a narcotics detective with the Pinellas Park, Fla. Police Department and a police academy instructor. Det. Touart holds an MBA in HR Management and held various roles on the SWAT team, including entry team leader.

Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2013

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