Team conflict- I remember their faces vividly.

All change Team conflict

I was invited to work as a Team conflict coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.

The invitation – Team conflict

I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behavior of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.

What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behavior, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’

At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced. ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in the future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.

Nick Wright is a qualified and experienced psychological coach and organisation development (OD) consultant.

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