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


  1. Michael Awoke August 31, 2015 at 10:26 am - Reply


    I want to thank you a lot for the articles you send out. Conflict (challeging ideas) I believe are very important and associates must not be scared of them. In my opinion, if associates understoond why conflicts are important and how to manage them, then and only then “fake harmony” can be avoided in the workplace.

    Please keep on send the artilces.


  2. Attie van Wyk August 31, 2015 at 10:28 am - Reply

    It eliminates complacency, focuses attention and effort on objectives and goals, drives creative and innovative thinking and promotes ongoing improvement.
    The inverse results in group think, stagnation and a false sense of business health.

  3. Ref Makoloi August 31, 2015 at 10:45 am - Reply

    One can learn a thing or two from this team. We tend to pussy footy around issues, walking on eggs shells when it comes to certain individuals, so much so that important issues remain unresolved. What happens is that we end up with side room meetings, excluding the individual, and solving nothing at the end of the day.

  4. Joe August 31, 2015 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    Brilliant piece. As Patrick Lencioni suggests, it all starts with trust and this is how I define TRUST:

    Telling the truth – being honest
    Revealing your authentic self – acknowledging your weaknesses, failures and mistakes
    Uttering your emotions – expressing your feelings and fears – not holding back
    being Sincere – not pretending and admitting the truth about oneself
    being Trustworthy – being transparent and showing integrity and commitment to do the right thing

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield August 31, 2015 at 1:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks Joe – I love your definition of trust. Mostly I appreciate your definition of sincerity and making that an element of trust.

  5. Annalise Scholtz August 31, 2015 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    In a team where conflict has been mastered by all, there will be less time wastage and ultimate higher productivity as per the article. It requires strong and emotionally mature leaders and team members. Very important ingredients of such a team are trust (as Joe said), respect and organisational focus. Without that it will be difficult to sustain the team.

  6. Willem Coetzee September 1, 2015 at 9:39 am - Reply

    All very true and relevant comments. I do however think it is not an easy thing to do as people can take things personal very easily. This is where EQ and absolute focus on the business results, values and vision come in.

  7. Graham Vercueil September 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Hi All

    I also like the TRUST definition and have worked under greatly varying degrees of trust and seen the effects. If we can’t trust the leadership to manage conflict consistently, there is too much risk involved for team members in pitching their efforts in at 100%.

    One of the key issues in gaining trust is really listening, very well describe in ‘Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline,
    ISBN 0-7063-7745-1

    without well developed conflict management it seems that we are at risk of some version of schoolroom bullying at the cost of service delivery.

    Thanks for the posts, very interesting.

  8. eric September 2, 2015 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    I wish we had a lot of such well motivated and focused teams/individual. We always invest on time wastages – really we need to identify & eliminate wastages. That action will take us closer to a WIN WIN environment.

  9. Victor Kpentey September 3, 2015 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    Very nice piece. Openess among executive team is crucial to success. Options and choices will have to be hardly challenged. this will certainly create discomfort for some team members. however, the tone needs to be clear to provide some ease for the members. Corridor talk breaches the trust and affects creativity. Mastering how to deal with the confilict will improve the productivity and ensure only the best choices are made based on the available facts.

  10. Ivy Morulane October 1, 2015 at 10:16 am - Reply

    I also think that trust, honesty and transparecy are the fundamental issues in reducing uncertainty in the workplace. Learning again to validate your facts before one spread information to avoid unnecessary doubt.

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