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  • Writer's pictureJulia Posselt

Shapeshifters. Should we stay or should we go?

Walking on the wild side. Team conflict: What new is trying to happen?

Let’s think of a team that fulfills the fundamental conditions of a great team. According to Ruth Wageman,this is a team that is bounded, stable and genuinely interdependent:

1) Bounded: Everybody knows who is in the team and who is not. The boundaries are clear.

2) Stable: The team members work together long enough to learn how to be effective together.

3) Genuinely interdependent: It’s necessary to exchange information and resources in order to accomplish some important purpose.

Let’s further assume the structural team design is set up well. Our team had a great start, it was set up for success right from the beginning, and up until now we had a positive trajectory. The team knows its purpose and is eager to create forward movement together.

Conflict as a gift. Imagine… you can touch this!

Conflict in high-purpose teams is seen as intelligent forces competing for truth: Whenever two good people argue, they are both right.

Collaboration in adaptive environments and uncertain times can be stressful. So, how can we thrive on conflict, using conflict as one out of many power skills, embracing a growth mindset to redirect our energies towards solutions and outcomes that serve the team well?

Conflict levels

Make it a habit to observe, identify and reveal the most current conflict level to the team. Let’s have it out in the open.

  • Are we in constructive or destructive disagreement?

  • Does winning trump resolving?

  • Or is it more personal protection over collaboration?

Are we moving down the emotional spiral, from boredom to pessimism, frustration, overwhelm, disappointment, doubt, worry, blame… low, lower and lower?

Or are we moving up, being hopeful and optimistic, sharing positive expectations enthusiastically, being passionate about what still wants to emerge?

Root cause: Rock’n roles

What causes us to be in conflict? Looking at the topic and beyond, does the conflict reappear like a perpetuum mobile? Then it’s worth digging deeper. Common root causes for conflict are:

  • lack of power (real or perceived),

  • inability to affect change,

  • or lack of safety.

What role does conflict play in our team? How do we make conflict one of our team’s power skill? Rather than acting as fire fighters and solving conflicts case by case it’s worth taking a look beyond the surface. How does our team attend to conflict, how do we do conflict – does conflict make us thrive or survive?

What conflict styles have become most prevalent? How do we manage conflict with our key stakeholders? What conflict type is our sponsor? And what conflict modes are reinforced in our ecosystem?

What about the conflict is really, really important? What is at stake? Winning the argument or strengthening the connection?

We are at choice. Always. And when it comes to conflict we better choose wisely: Is the conflict better avoided for now? Do we compromise or do we invest in a more collaborative approach? Do we give in or just have it our way?

To consciously navigate the conflict resolution map, dancing different conflict styles with several partners in crime, we best come from a solid place of knowing ourselves well.

Emotional & Social Intelligence: Driving or being driven?

Listed below are some of the most common toxic conflict behaviors according to Dr. John Gottman’s marital research that applies to relationships in general, hence also to teams:

· Blaming: When are we critical of our teammates?

· Contempt: When do we act with contempt of others?

· Stonewalling: What areas do we avoid talking about?

· Defensiveness: When do we fail to take responsibility for our contribution to problems?

As there is an “I” in “We”, we best also review the above behaviors for ourselves. Personal mastery is a journey. When communicating with others while in conflict, being respectful and speaking kindly definitely helps – beware though to not "kill them with friendliness".

Looking inward and taking responsibility for our contribution to the situation might be a good first step out of an otherwise continuously looping vicious circle. When in conflict, how well do we attend to our own feelings and to the feelings of others?

Team Intelligence: Knowing our team’s conflict style

Style matters. Looking at our team, what does it turn into when in conflict? Do we fight like the Sharks, Shreks, Ninja Turtles, Kung Fu Pandas or Foxcrafts? Is it about who does what to whom or is information shared using an open, fact-based language?

Support your team to deal with conflict more creatively;

What new is trying to happen? … make it your conscious choice.

Turn insight into action…

According to psychologist Bruce Tuckman, when building a team its members often go through recognizable phases which are known as “The Tuckman Ladder (1965)” or Tuckman’s stages of group development: Forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning. Hint: It’s interesting to also look into swarming.

While forming teams we agree on ground rules, agreements the team revisits and redesigns as needed throughout its journey (according to Timothy Biggs known as “re-norming” to continuously challenge the status quo in order to reach higher potential).

Team Conflict Protocol

To define solutions collaboratively, designing a team conflict protocol together at the very start is recommended – especially as “storming” is known as a natural second stage in the developmental process of small groups.

Possible questions to be answered together are:

  • Our ideal team: How would it handle conflicts and disagreements?

  • What are some behaviors we want to have happen when conflict occurs?

  • What are some things we do not want to happen when conflict occurs?

Questions to strengthen the commitment:

  • How will we hold one another accountable for following these agreements?

  • What will we do if someone breaks an agreement?

Get more inspiration from the article "Resolving conflict by working with Team Toxins" by Jake Calabrese.

Deepen your insight…

You want to know more about “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling”? Read this article provided by The Gottman Institute; they offer a research-based approach to relationships:

You want to know how to make your team shift from disagreement to creative conflict? Send me an email or call me.


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