Dealing with Team Flare-ups

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


Most teams suffer from the occasional conflict and team members losing their cool.

We work with a lot of teams, some of these have members who are competitive with each other and as a result struggle to leave the storming stage. Others move past this and capitalise on real synergy. This is the story of one leadership team that had some touchy issues and what they did about it.

This particular team is now on the positive end of that scale – they’re on the road to being a great team. They have worked hard at being able to challenge one another, hold each other accountable and speak openly and honestly about frustrations. This kind of trust and communication is critical to a high functioning team and they knew they needed to operate there. So the members all agreed that the uncontrolled emotional outbursts that were happening needed to be dealt with.

We were invited to facilitate the discussion at their quarterly team session which is usually focused on ‘how they work’ as a team rather than the business they work in. Our job was to get an agreement for how to deal with these outbursts. Although we thought that getting an agreement would be fairly easy, living up to the agreement over time would be the hard part.

First we got the team to define what a ‘uncontrolled emotional outburst’ was (or a Flare-up or ‘F-UP’ as it jokingly became known) and why these occurred. The reasons ranged from tiredness and insufficient caffeine, through to more serious reasons such as inaction on important items that had been brought up repeatedly. Some of the flare-ups were the result of team members having different perspectives on how each should be managing problems in their respective areas that were affecting the wider business.

The team decided that what they needed was a set of ground rules for dealing with frustrations and flare-ups when they occurred. With their permission, I have copied much of what they agreed below:

Flare-up Ground Rules

We will:

1. Use our team meetings and not other public forums to vent.

2. Take a break if necessary to calm down. If we do take a break, we will agree when to reconvene the team to address the issue.

3. Try our best to vent using ‘I’ and ‘me’ statements to describe how we feel and why, rather than attacking the other team member(s).

4. All ask questions of the member who is venting and any other person involved to encourage them to speak up so that we can understand how they feel and why.

The team then decided that while ground rules would help deal with a flare-up once it has happened, if possible, they wanted to prevent flare-ups from occurring in the first place. So they developed a process to diffuse frustrations before they boiled over and became full-blown F-UPs. Thus the “F-UP Risk Register and Action Process” was created.

F-UP Risk Register and Action Process

What is a F-UP Risk?

A F-UP Risk exists where one team member (the Reporter) is so frustrated about an ongoing unresolved issue that they are at risk of an uncontrolled emotional outburst that might damage team or staff relationships. The issue must be a major impediment to them or others doing their job effectively and one which puts the organisation or performance at risk. The Reporter must also have already made serious efforts to have the issue addressed by the relevant team member or the leader.

What is not a F-UP Risk?

    • Isolated cases of bad hair days.

    • Issues that may cause some frustration but don’t have major organisational impact.

    • Issues that have not been raised and worked through with the appropriate individual team members first, with adequate time allowed for resolution.

The team should expect only a handful of true F-UP Risks to be registered in any year. But those that are registered will receive urgent attention from the team’s leader and team.

Process for Registering a F-UP Risk

A F-UP Risk can be proactively registered at any time by a team member emailing the team’s leader with a brief description of the issue as they see it, the impact of non-resolution, and actions already taken by the Reporter to raise and get the issue resolved.

Process for Handling a Registered F-UP Risk

1. On receiving a F-UP Risk advice, the team’s leader will enter that risk on the register and circulate a F-UP Risk Alert to the team within 24 hours.

2. The team’s leader will consult the reporter and key stakeholders on the issue to define the underlying cause(s) and to develop a process to resolve the issue. Communication to the team on the process to be followed will go out within 7 days of the Risk Alert being received.

3. The F-UP Risk remains on the register (and on team meeting agendas) until the reporter and key stakeholders agree the underlying issue has been satisfactorily resolved.

Final Thoughts

Good teams take time to regularly work on ‘how they operate’. This involves working on how to deal with things when they go wrong and how to prevent things from going wrong in the first place. The great teams encourage honesty, debate, and hold each other accountable. They know and accept that things will become emotional from time to time. They put in place mechanisms to allow team members to vent their frustrations and emotions so that they can be dealt with in a constructive way.

This isn’t a question of getting together to sing Kumbaya. In fact teams with members who don’t even like each other can do this very effectively and achieve great results.

Now begins the harder work of living up to their agreement. And great teams do.

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