Great Leaders, Great Teams, and the Conflicts They Cause


In a room full of winners, there are certainly winning ideas. Great leaders know how to mine them without getting anyone killed.

Some years ago, while serving as a university president, I attended a conference for college administrators. I heard one president tell another, "I hate it when my vice presidents can't agree. Sometimes when I'm trying to get what ought to be a pretty quick consensus on some issue, everybody in the room seems to think their point of view is the right on. I get so sick of bad group dynamics."

Of course, I did not say a single word but I walked away thinking plenty of words. What that president had, and which, from his own words, I must assume he did not like, was not bad at all, but good. Even if his team dynamics were bad, the health or toxicity of a group's dynamics are the responsibility of leadership.

I don't suppose any leader enjoys presiding over team conflict, but it is unavoidable and will be until the age of robots evolves a bit further. Absent of mindless automatons, there will be differing opinions in every team. The better the team, the higher octane the members, the more conflict there will be. Hire weak-kneed sycophants and you'll have very few differences of opinion in the room. All your associates will spend most of their energy trying to figure out your opinion and whatever is left they will spend competing to be first on the bandwagon. On the other hand, hire strong-minded professionals with diverse knowledge sets, expertise, experience and backgrounds and they are hardly likely to be shrinking violets unwilling to speak their minds.

The "bad" thing about thoroughbreds is that they want to run. They don't want to just sit in the barn and be hand fed sugar.  On the other hand, the good thing about thoroughbreds is that they win races. If you want to win, surround yourself with winners.

Here are essentials for managing winners.

1. Team conflict is not bad. The best team members have the best ideas are willing for their facts and figures to be scrutinized.  The best team members are not fearful of being proven wrong. They can be questioned without dissolving in tears. They are secure enough to know that if their idea is rejected it does not invalidate their place at the table. Great leaders are not afraid of team conflict.

2. Great leaders also protect the process from emotional toxicity. Conflict does not have to mean rudeness such as name calling, accusations, snide remarks or manipulation.  The leader is the meeting referee. You have to know when to blow the whistle but you never want to stop the action. Great leaders know that the team must be protected from each other. If the air is allowed to become to toxic, your best people will keep their thoughts to themselves and THAT is the last thing you want.

3. Great leaders know how to facilitate the communication. To guide a team through conflict a leader must learn to translate and synthesize. Great leaders learn how and when to use phrases such as:

     "I'm not sure that's what she's saying."

     "Let me say that back to you and you tell me if I'm hearing you correctly."

     "Look, he's not attacking you. He's just asking where you got those figures."

and ...

     "Ok. We've chewed on this for quite a while now. Let me say what I think we have decided and you people tell me if I've about got it right."

4. Your team members must also know they're safe with you. If it's dangerous to disagree with leadership, folks will learn to keep their mouths shut. If telling the leader he's headed in a dangerous direction is too costly, letting him drive over a cliff may seem a safer plan. Domineering and insecure mangers smother communication and silence their best and brightest.  Great leaders don't mind the conflict. They find the silence deafening.

Managing team conflict can be exhausting. It can also be the title to a gold mine. In a room full of winners, there are certainly winning ideas. The great leaders know how to dig them out without getting anyone killed.

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