Your trump card for resolving conflicts in teams

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28 February 2015

If I were to ask you whether you’re conflict averse, I wonder what you’d say.

The default of quite a few Chief Executives is to say, “Wot, me? Of course not! It’s part of the job, isn’t it?"

And yet we know that so many are conflict-averse. I would say that a majority of the CEOs that I have worked with these past few years are conflict-averse to one degree or another.

Some acknowledge this freely, whereas others are more guarded. It’s a fair while before they are willing to say, “Yep, it’s right, I do hate conflict, and I’ll go to some lengths to avoid it”.

One of the major downsides of being a conflict-averse leader is that problems are allowed to build up, and up and up … so that when you finally have to confront one you really can have a major challenge on your hands.

How best to handle this? I want to share with you a process that I used a few weeks ago, with a leadership team who were dealing with a major challenge that had built up to such an extent that we could see it inflicting serious damage on the organisation unless they could find some agreed way forward.


This approach has four stages:

Stage One: Cards on the table

Stage Two: We look at each other’s cards

Stage Three: Which cards most attract you – and why?

Stage Four: What is your trump card - and game-changer?

For each stage, I suggest a key groundrule to keep the discussion as open and focused and forward-looking as possible.

Stage 1:

Everyone is asked to declare their own position in a way that is up-front and also tentative

For stage one, the aim is encourage everyone to be as open as possible with each other about what they want the outcome to be. When faced with this sort of question, some people like to talk about everyone else apart from themselves, so I’m very explicit in saying, “What would you like your role to be in taking forward whatever you agree through this process?”

To draw people out and encourage plain speaking, one groundrule is more important than any other. This is that everyone reserves the right to change their mind as they hear the views of others.

As long as this is clear, and agreed, everyone knows that they can speak freely without ever feeling trapped into defending one particular position.

And, of course, if people are to give themselves permission to try out on each other fresh ideas that come to mind during the discussion, it’s essential to agree that nothing is fixed - and all views expressed during this opening round are tentative.

Stage 2:

Encouraging questions across the group

When a leadership team get stuck in relation to an issue, and some begin to take sides against others in the team, they generally STOP asking each other questions about why they want what they want.

More often than not, those teams that end up with prolonged low-level conflicts have very low levels of questioning across the team.

That is why in this stage I encourage people to ask questions of each other to understand better where they are coming from.

The danger, however, is that this process can easily trigger a desire in some to justify why they did what they did in a previous “drama” that remains unresolved in some way. The moment this happens, the group can instantly lose focus.

This is why there is one essential groundrule for this second stage: No self-justification!

I tell people that if anyone goes into any self-justification in relation to anything in the past, I will immediately stop them.

I have found that this groundrule is especially important for those who are conflict averse. It prevents some from retelling stories of earlier disagreements, and ensures that you keep a positive spirit in the discussion, while you’re each trying to understand better the implications of the various cards that have been placed on the table.

Stage 3:

Asking how everyone is responding to the ideas and proposals put forward by others

This is the stage when I ask whether people are rethinking in any way the position that they put forward at the outset of the discussion.

Usually I find that someone is, and the challenge is to make them feel comfortable about sharing it, given that they’re probably not yet sure how they themselves feel about it, let alone how the others are likely to feel about it.

This is why I place so much emphasis on the groundrule for this third stage, which is that they should each give themselves permission to be open to some shift in thinking on their part.

I can’t stress too strongly how important is this concept of people giving themselves permission to question their own assumptions. So often we don’t do this in teams, and it’s because we don’t that there is so often no space in team discussions for fresh ideas to land.

The key in this process is to create the space for fresh ideas to come in!

The more people feel able to be tentative in expressing their preferences, the easier it is for someone else to say “I see that, and how about ….”

It’s in answering this question that someone else in the team might come up with the breakthrough proposition that you all take away at the end, and were only able to consider during debate through people feeling able to ask this magical question.

It sounds so straightforward, and yet there are so few discussions among top teams where it’s possible for people to think out loud about some sort of new idea - and ask each other what that might look like.

Stage 4:

Asking which idea could be your real trump card and game-changer if people play it with confidence

This is the stage when I say to a team: now is the time to jump!

There’s one question we need to concentrate on: what is the single most important action that you need to agree on as a group that would be your best game-changer – and why?

I like to suggest that the first people to answer the question should be those whose thinking has moved on as a result of the conversation. In the process of them sharing with the team why their thinking has changed, there is always a sense that this is a real gift, in its own right.

The key groundrule in this final “lap” is that people should resist any temptation to produce a “shopping list” with a 10-point programme rolled into one.

Once one person does that and someone else wants to reword point 7 on their list, you know you might as well dig a hole and jump in it, because you won’t end up with a clear outcome.

This is why I say to the team that what matters is what’s at the top of their personal lists, and why – and let’s stick to negotiating what’s at the top of the list that will be owned by the whole team.

The ideal, of course, is that there is a genuine consensus so that what you take away at the end reflects the unanimous view of the whole Group. And it’s nearly always easier to achieve this if you are clear from the outset that the goal is to agree a basis for the whole team to take forward whatever the majority agree.

By this stage in the process the discussion is about alternatives, and what the best option might be. Any discussion about a perfect option is behind us, as we focus on what the team sees as the best game-changer, that they can commit to together, as their way of tackling the problem that they themselves – through their own “stuckness” - have helped to perpetuate.

When this process produces a positive outcome, as it always does, there is a real sense of empowerment that comes in the final few minutes.

It’s so easy to forget how disempowering it is to become tied up in some sort of conflict or stand-off that goes on and on and on.

To spend a few hours discussing how best to step outside that conflict, and then actually come up with some sort of home-grown solution which makes that possible, is truly empowering for everyone involved in the process.

Stopping ourselves getting in our own way

Two propositions sit at the heart of this process:

- the importance of championing the creativity of people who give themselves permission to shift in their thinking

- and then the importance of creating space for a new idea to land, in a way that enables people to own that idea as theirs, because they experienced it coming out of the process they went through together.

To me, the great privilege of being a facilitator lies in the opportunity to help people stop themselves getting in their own way. That’s what we all do at times, every one of us.

As we realise together that we share an opportunity to overcome an obstacle that is standing in our way, and we have to some extent at least created ourselves, then we can do exciting things together, because we see that the blockage in many ways represents our lack of faith in ourselves.

Rediscovering that faith in self, together, is what powerful team working is about.

This is why I commend this process to you – because the end result is a stronger team, more aware then ever of our capacity to get in our own way and more determined than ever to enjoy the freedom we have just created for ourselves.

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