Mastering Conflict

This was no ordinary executive team.

Their meetings were lively and interesting. Controversial topics were tackled head on and team members voiced their opinions even if this meant disagreeing with each other.

There was very little fake harmony that characterizes the dynamics of so many teams.

People voiced their opinions even if it caused disagreement as long as it was productive. All of this happened inside of their meetings. There was no corridor talk about each other to third parties.

Loyalty to the absent was one of their most sacred rules.

This made them different.

In working with them I was struck by how consistently important and difficult issues were discussed. In contrast, many other teams prefer to talk about everything and anything else other than what is really going on.

The team was passionate and unguarded in these discussions and no one held back, even it meant expressing an unpopular view.

The result was that the team solved real problems quickly and executives seldom had to go back to their team’s empty handed. A decision or action on critical issues had always been made.

Bottlenecks disappeared and issues were resolved.

But it also had another effect.

Politics was minimized and the rest of the organisation could see it. This set the tone for the next layer of leaders and their teams which directed the focus of the business to where it should be – externally, into winning the hearts and minds of customers.

This team was simply obsessed with making the best decisions for the organisation.

They didn’t always make the right ones, because like all of us they did not have perfect foresight and information – but the best interests of the business were what drove them. The bigger picture was that their entire market place was changing. Their environment was volatile and competitors and technologies were threatening and disruptive.

They were fixated with not becoming complacent and allowing hubris to creep into their ranks.

A few members of the team, who were used to a more sheltered and conflict-averse environment, found it difficult. They really struggled at first. Even as mature executives this was tough for them.

But the leader of the business was clear.

His view was that if members of the team are not making one another uncomfortable at times and if they’re never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organisation.

This set the tone and he was unapologetic about it.

Admittedly it was not perfect.

Sometimes he pushed too hard and it felt personal. But he was transparent with his intentions – it was all about making the best decisions for the organisation’s success. At the same time he also worked very hard to build the team.

The team was held to a high standard and more was expected.

Fortunately people realised that being on this team was a crucial point of growth in their careers. As demanding as it was they saw the value and grasped the opportunity to improve in areas where they needed to.

One person told me it was like starting to exercise again after a long period of inactivity.

My journey with this team has been a highlight of my own career. As of today their environment is still volatile and very competitive. It probably will always be that way. The disruption and change is continuing unabated.

But I’ll put my money on them making it.

I bet they will continue to figure out a way to solve problems faster than their competitors, because they have done what few teams ever do, they have mastered conflict.

We love hearing your comments. Tell us why you think mastering conflict is so essential on a team and what happens if you don’t. We will send everyone who comments a copy of Patrick Lencioni’s fantastic article – The Trouble with Teamwork

If you’d like to be in touch please call me on +27 82 894 4288 or mail me on

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