Leading Through Team Conflict: Containing the Negative

In my last post I explored how team conflict might actually be a positive and productive process. Harmful or negative team conflict, however, requires intentional action on the part of a leader to keep it from corroding the team dynamic and having lasting effects. Carole Townsend cites M. Nelson’s five approaches for addressing negative team conflicts: Direct Approach, Bargaining, De-emphasis, Retreat, and Enforcement.  Which approach you use should depends on the nature of the problem.

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Leading Through Team Conflict: Nurture the Positive

“As a leader, you probably dedicate more of your time on issues like productivity and meeting deadlines than on conflict resolution. When there is strife and personalities clash, you may reach for what you think will be a quick fix: find the ‘problem’ people and separate them from the rest of the group.  Despite your best intentions, hunting for a problem person, labeling, or ostracizing is not the answer. Labeling any of your team members or allowing them to label each other as “toxic,” “the problem,” “a jerk,” etc., only perpetuates disconnection.”

This was written by two executive coaches, Joan Bunashe and Lindsay Broder in an article in Entrepreneur, and other past research supports the assertion that managers tend to place conflict resolution at the bottom of their to-do list. But while it may be tempting to feel that your leadership position entitles you to focus elsewhere while your team works out their disagreements, you’re likely to shoot yourself in the foot with this approach. A team plagued by conflict will eventually stop delivering, and your meeting deadlines and productivity checks won’t be much help. On the contrary, your position as a leader means you can make crucial interventions on the level of conflict to keep your team on track. [Read more…]

Team Conflict: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It

The plethora of literature available on this topic plays testament to the importance and sweeping relevance of team conflict in the contemporary workplace. Two minds are better than one goes the old adage, and in the workplace teamwork continues to reward those who cultivate it well. However, where you find synergy and collaboration, you are just as bound to find friction: “conflict arises from differences, and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict,” writes Carole A. Townsley in an article for The Team Building Director. Our ideas multiply, but so do the challenges of being human. The good news? Educating yourself about team conflict can help you to lead your team through it – and rig the chances so you benefit more than you lose. [Read more…]

Group Work: Who’s in and who’s out?

I page through the business section of the New York Times on a regular basis, and I very often find material there that is relevant to mediation and facilitation. Nearly every business requires collaborating in groups, and as Phil Gilbert, general manager of IBM Design, recently pointed out in his New York Times piece[1] this can be a major strength, contributing enormously to brewing up new possibilities. But only if the group work is done well, in a way that allows everyone’s ideas to work their way into the conversation. What does this entail?

“[G]etting the best work out of a team isn’t about silencing the loudest person. It’s about getting everyone involved to explore every angle, bring all ideas to the surface and collaborate on a path forward.”[2] There is an important insight here: bringing all those ideas to the surface doesn’t just mean there are things you shouldn’t do because they silence people. Pulling everybody’s perspective into view is an active process. It takes strategy and intention. It’s something you have to plan to do before you can reap the benefits of getting together a team to problem solve or innovate.

Facilitation is all about intentionally cultivating rewarding synergies. Facilitators and mediators make the art of these processes their life’s work; it’s our modus operandi, our “M.O.” – and perhaps with some added urgency, because we know group work that silences participants can do more than inhibit innovation. It can also cause conflict. Below are some insights and strategies from facilitation that augment Gilbert’s exploration of inclusive group work. [Read more…]

Courageous Questions, Part II: The Employee

Inquiry for Employees

Last week I wrote about courageous questions for managers to consider. Given the heightened responsibility and authority involved in managing, it may seem more obvious that critical inquiry is an essential part of that job. Taking an employee perspective, however, shows us that asking reflective questions provides huge benefits on both sides of the tracks.

As an employee, you face work challenges from a different perspective. You may feel silenced by the authority of your superiors, or struggle to get along with coworkers. It might be difficult to hear important feedback from colleagues or superiors, or perhaps you have more specific up-close knowledge of a problem that is only a distant matter on paper for decision makers up the hierarchy, causing frustration or misunderstanding. Asking the courageous questions can help you to build self-awareness and make intentional decisions regarding communication and group work. Aside from these benefits, career advancement comes from being a leader of good practice before any one else has designated you a leader. Sowing conflict, on the contrary, rarely helps anyone get ahead. Taking up the challenge of reflection and improvement on your own terms can be a positive and empowering experience. [Read more…]

Courageous Questions, Part I: The Manager

Inquiry: A Tool for Success

The next two posts are about the importance of inquiry, with part I targeting the perspective of managers.

We ask a great deal of ourselves each day in our careers: to meet goals, complete long task lists, put in the extra hour to meet a deadline or solve an unforeseen problem. But underlying all of these practical questions are the social, human relations that make it all possible. Teamwork, mutuality, the challenge of bringing collective success to life – these, too, require their own kinds of investment, and are unquestionably necessary to making all those individual efforts count at the end of the day. Asking yourself and your colleagues courageous questions will help you develop your fortitude as a collaborative leader in your organization.

As a manager you have extra responsibility, as well as extra room to cultivate the creativity and dedication that are going to put your team’s work on the map. Conflict and problematic group dynamics can be a major set back, and you might have the most power in the room to affect them. Exercise courage in your leadership position by adopting inquiry as a tool to lead the entire department forward. [Read more…]

Bridging: Building Partnerships to Unite an Organization

Newsletter Edition: September 2013

Dear Reader,

September is a time of transitions so our article on bridging is particularly appropriate. The bedrock of the bridge is built on fundamental mediator skills which all leaders can tap into.

In other news, our new website will be ready very soon…Watch for our announcement!


Bridging is the seventh tool of the mediator identified by Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Boston, MA. Harvard Business School Press, 2006. Bridging follows naturally from our last newsletter article about dialogue. True dialogue means identifying creative options where none previously existed and deeply examining the assumptions we have about “the other” in conflict. [Read more…]