Becoming a Great Leader: Managing Conflict in Teams

Elegant leader

Guest contributed by CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Let’s face it: Most of us hate conflict. Even the toughest among us are at least a little uncomfortable with it. When faced with it, many leaders and executives tend to opt out.

But, here’s the truth: The best and most creative solutions often happen when people opt in to conflict. Not an all-out brawl or a name calling wrestling match, but a quality sharing of how we really feel about a decision or an issue. To do this a leader must create optimal conditions and their job isn’t to have the right answer, but to create the space for the project, team, or organization to wrestle together to collaboratively come up with an answer and move forward.

Our decade and a half of experience working with teams shows that when even one person listens to and reflects on the opposing opinion of a peer with genuine curiosity, the change in the room is palpable. That combination of vision, opinion, and passion, when combined with curiosity, leads the entire team to new possibilities. That’s the role of a healthy dose of curiosity.

Too often a leader unwittingly defuses the tension by determining the right answer, Maybe you have as a leader or have seen leaders cutting off discussion and taking things off-line when people get too emotional or listening to the loudest or the favorite voice, the one whose thoughts are usually the same as the leader’s.

The Value of Vulnerability and Curiosity

When teams are vulnerable and curious, they use the natural energy of conflict and discover that it isn’t my way or your way, but a whole new way. New ideas emerge. Instead of a fight, there is magic.

It starts with people opting in, becoming vulnerable, and revealing what they really think, feel, and want. This allows for a free flow of opinions which can be more or less judgmental but if combined with curiosity, not righteousness or defensiveness) can use the energy of conflict to become a smarter and highly innovative team.

We’ve seen it time and time again in our work. Teams that master the use of vulnerability and curiosity produce creative and innovative solutions not just once, but over and over again. They are more resilient and they bounce back from setbacks and failure. People on these teams feel engaged and fulfilled, and they have more fun. Just an aside: It’s probably no surprise that vulnerability and curiosity work wonders in personal relationships too.

Either of these qualities can instantly transform a team in conflict. Put them together and teams make quantum leaps forward. It only takes one individual to make a difference.

And, remember that you don’t have to let go of your judgments or opinions. Curiosity means having your judgments and being open and interested in a different perspective. Being curious means considering that there may be more than one right way, reality, or answer.

Stopping the fight for your right way and being open to the ideas of others and taking an interest in how the other person came to his or her conclusion. Listening with the willingness to be influenced via an open mind.

Some helpful phrases that help demonstrate curiosity and elicit another’s response are:
  • “Help me understand how you got there.”
  • “Why is this so important to you?”
  • “What is driving your strong conviction?”
  • “Tell me where I’m wrong?”
  • “Wow! That is very different from my view. How’d you get there?”
So, want to transform your team? Here’s how:
  • Be human and acknowledge conflict. You are the model. If you acknowledge when you’re uncomfortable in the tension and ambiguity, others learn they’re not alone.
  • Don’t go for the quick fix. The drive for efficiency in conflict is born from the discomfort of the tension, the ambiguity of not having the answer, or a fear of looking bad.
  • Get out of the right-wrong trap. Yes, we all want to be right, but do you want to be right more than you want to succeed?
  • Check for conflict. If you see people disengage, check it out. Encourage people to speak up, to have different opinions, and to hang in for the long haul.
  • Listen to the naysayer with interested curiosity. Even when you think a team member is a pain in the butt, step into his shoes and see the world from his point of view, sharing that out loud. You might be surprised what you find when you get out of your own way.

The benefits of being curious include getting outside of your own story, which opens a greater pool of information to generate creative ideas. This can strengthen the team’s learning and growth.
Making the other person feel heard and considered can shift the energy from defense to cooperation, opening the door to new, creative possibilities and therefore transitioning the focus of the team from power struggles to idea expansion.

About the author

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are business consultants, speakers, and co-authors of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage (November 1, 2017).

They and their organization, specialize in helping professional women, leaders, teams and entire companies learn how to transform conflict into creativity and innovation.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions of Guest contributors are not necessarily those of