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Some thoughts about leading teams and team conflict

pink gloves

Building conducive, conflict competent team environments 

So what does it take to effectively lead a team through good and bad? If there is serious conflict in a team, is a win-win situation still possible? Teams often form the foundation of successful workplaces but personality differences and conflict can tear these apart costing organisations hugely.

With this newsletter we would like contribute some suggestions to the complex area of team management and team conflict.



Some thoughts about team leadership

By Danie Eksteen - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

A client recently asked what conscious leadership means – my simple answer was that it is a way of describing the key to success across the complexity and ambit of leadership. To be an effective leader requires high levels of awareness or consciousness and skill in a hierarchy of areas:

    • first of all about/ within yourself;
    • then in relation to all others (individually and in groups) with whom you are in relationship;
    • and overarching this, about your organisation – its competitive advantage, strategies and operational complexities.

In this hierarchy of skills and consciousness, each builds on the previous level of skill. Effective team leadership thus requires high levels of consciousness and competence firstly on the personal level and secondly on the level of relationship i.e. managing and leading others on a one-on-one basis.

Understanding the team members

One way of building understanding, awareness and consciousness of self and others is through personality type profiling tools. There are many of these tools that can be employed on the level of the individual, but fewer that focus on teams. One such tool, which is aimed at building insight and awareness between people in a team context, is the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI). This was developed more than 40 years ago by Dr. Elias Porter, an American psychologist who wanted to create a tool that would help people learn how to have truly effective interpersonal relationships.

Where many other tools look at the individual only, SDI specifically interrogates natural preferences in relationships with others. Done in a team context this powerful tool gives team members a colour coded visual expression of each other’s natural preferences that are likely to impact the team dynamic. For the leader (and team members) it provides a rich tapestry of information about the individuals in a group context, including:

    • What their deepest motivations are when relating to others.
    • The type of team environment in which they will perform optimally.
    • How they prefer to be acknowledged (complemented and rewarded).
    • The categories of people that they either naturally prefer to work with or not.
    • The things they deeply aspire to be (or to never be) in relationship with others.

Strategic Human Capital Consulting now has two consultants who are accredited providers of the SDI tools.

Dealing with team conflict

So why is conflict relevant for a conscious leader? A recent study that questioned 5000 employees in Europe and the Americas and 660 HR practitioners in the UK found that the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict (“...workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work”) and this, in UK workplaces alone, translates to 370 million working days lost every year. On the positive side, however, the study showed that 76% of people have had positive emotions out of a conflict situation that was managed effectively.

This study showed that an important aspect of the effective managing of conflict is having an awareness and insight into how others naturally react in situations of conflict. The SDI profile provides valuable assistance in this regards in that it both identifies team members’ natural preferences when things are not going well, i.e. conflict situations and provides insight into each member’s predicted sequence of behaviours in the different stages of conflict.

The stages of conflict describe the sequence of changes to our openness and objectivity, when dealing with conflict. In stage one you are likely to be pretty open and objective and able to deal with your own emotional experience of the conflict, the problem on the table as well as the other person’s role and emotional experience of the conflict. In stage two you lose the ability to objectively consider the other’s position and in stage three you have tunnel vision where you are likely to focus on your own emotional experience of the conflict only. The time period between stages will obviously differ from person to person and situation to situation.

So, as an example, the writer’s conflict sequence is to immediately rise to the challenge (typical ‘red’ behaviour in terms of SDI language); soon after which I pull back and get analytical about the situation (‘green’ behaviour); and finally I might withdraw and give in if the issue is not really important to me (‘blue’ behaviour). Comparatively, my partner’s sequence is to first be cautious and analytical (which my then ‘red glasses’ often interpret as not engaging), then to surrender conditionally (which my profile interprets as agreement) and then only to rise to the occasion and fight (by which time I am either well oiled for the disagreement or walking away!).

A team leader’s understanding and consciousness of their own conflict sequence and that of the individuals in their team, and thus likely the team as a whole, can add hugely to their overall team leader effectiveness.

Creating conducive team environments

The following are some of the other things the conscious leader can do to create team spaces that allow for optimal team and individual performance:

a) Manage for a positive emotional space

In research that has stretched over 20 years, Prof John Gottman has found overwhelming evidence that the relationships of couples where negativity outweighed positivity in their overall interaction over time ended in divorce. Similarly Losada and Heaphy have found that when comparing low, medium and high performing teams the latter generally have positive emotional spaces, i.e. the instances of positive vs. negative engagement (including inquiry vs. advocacy) overall is at a ratio of around 5 to 1 (interestingly the same ratio found by Gottman!). Low performance teams operated in very restrictive emotional spaces as a result of a lack of mutual support and enthusiasm, often in an atmosphere charged with distrust and cynicism.

b) Lead with appreciation and encouragement

Losada and Heaphy found that “by showing appreciation and encouragement to other members of the team” teams created emotional spaces that opened up possibilities for action and creativity.

c) Create space for creative disagreement: open communication vs. democracy

Managing conflict appropriately does not equate to avoiding conflict and managing for consensus under all circumstances. The very dangerous brother of consensus is called Groupthink, i.e. we either all have to agree at all cost so we stop thinking critically or the leader/ manager is such a dominant personality that we stop challenging them.  

d) Lead the team one by one

A team ultimately is made up of individuals and for the individual it is important to feel that they truly matter, that they contribute unique value to the whole and are being recognised for it by their leaders. Towers Watson found in a worldwide study that the single highest driver of engagement is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their wellbeing.

How can Strategic Human Capital Consulting help you?

Whether your team relationship challenge is: finding yourself appointed as team leader for the first time; taking the brave step of moving from a carefully built sole proprietorship to a partnership; finding your team kicking against your leadership style; having to put two leadership teams together in a merger and acquisition; or struggling to get your/ a team to effectively execute organisational strategy, we can assist you with a carefully designed programme or strategy to deal with that challenge. We know we can help you build effective teams, playing to their strengths in a creative dynamic environment that sees individuals engaged as a team towards optimally achieving business strategies.


Fight, flight or face it? Celebrating the effective management of conflict at work, A global research report by OPP® in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, July 2008 / Consensus - Team Building's Silent Killer, Mike Myatt, Forbes Leadership, 19 April 2012 / What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital process and marital outcomes, Gottman J.M., 1994, p. 331 , New York, Lawrence Earlbaum / The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy, American Behavioral Scientist 2004; 47; 740 / Relationship Awareness Theory, Manual of Administration and Interpretation, Elias Porter, 9th edition

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