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Leading Through Team Conflict: Nurture the Positive

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

“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.

Every team has conflicts. A good leader guides their team through the creative process while avoiding destructive negative conflicts.
Every team has conflicts. A good leader guides their team through the creative process while avoiding destructive negative conflicts.

Brakes or Cruise Control?

Last week I kicked off this series by exploring the dual nature of team conflict – it’s inevitable, sometimes even positive, and also the biggest problem with workplace teams. Erich Brockman’s approach to a team leader’s role in conflict builds on this observation: “As a team leader, one must realize the paradox that surrounds conflict. The team needs to embrace conflict as a means of generating and evaluating ideas. While at the same time, it must shy away from it to prevent anger, frustration, or alienation. The biggest challenge for the team leader is figuring out how to balance these two forces.”

The first step, then, when confronted with a conflict amongst your team is to decide initially whether you’re dealing with a desirable or undesirable sort of conflict. Might it lead somewhere productive? Or does the situation just promise to be destructive? There isn’t always a clear-cut separation between the two, and to answer these questions it will be important to apply your ‘integral leader vision’ and take a mountain top view of the situation, as I’ve discussed in earlier content. The stakes can be high: sometimes if a positive conflict is left unattended it can easily develop into something more sinister. But an initial assessment will help you choose whether you need to exercise your power as the leader to put on the brakes, or to facilitate a tough conversation through to a better end.

Helpful Team Conflict

This post by Lorraine Segal is helpful in thinking through what constitutes productive conflict – rather than being overly affective, it is “task” oriented, or more “cognitive.” If things get a little tense while your team is hashing out an idea session, it might be productive, and in that case you may even want to gently stoke the discussion and encourage your employees to argue their positions – it might unleash some creativity and uncensored honesty that otherwise wouldn’t surface. Additionally, this kind of productive friction might move your team beyond the space of innocuous and pleasant but superficial ‘chat’ into the more challenging but equally more rewarding space of ‘dialogue’ – a crucial communicative transition that will likely come with notable yields. Prominent scholar Alan C. Amason states that “there is mounting evidence that effective top management teams engage in cognitive conflict but limit affective conflict.”
However, it’s important to remember the characteristics of more destructive kinds of conflicts – when things get personal, or too affectively oriented. As you facilitate and manage those productive tensions, help your team keep their language task oriented and away from personal characteristics. Watch for warning signs: if heated disagreements turn into pointed attacks, or if someone starts to act as though they’re really feeling hurt, you might be in dangerous waters. A little intervention from you as a leader – a request for calm, or reiterating affirmation for the work everyone is doing (and especially anyone who is taking heat for their ideas) could be all it takes to keep the team dynamic on track. If that doesn’t work, it might be necessary to put on the brakes and take a different approach. Come back next week to read about leading through harmful team conflict.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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