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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

A Surprising Secret: How High-Performing Teams Transform Conflict Into a Competitive Edge

[A slightly different version of this post appeared as an article in the May 2024 issue of NorthBay Biz magazine.]

Conflict as a Catalyst

Many business leaders know how challenging it can be to build a high-performing team. Egos clash, tensions flare, and once-promising upstarts find themselves burning out in spectacular fashion. But what if I told you your team can do more than just survive conflicts—they can harness them and turn them into a competitive advantage?


High-performing teams (HPTs) are not conflict-free utopias. They can be arenas where unproductive conflicts become healthy disagreements, and then get channeled into creative fuel for innovation and growth. It's how they stay several steps ahead of the pack, delivering top-notch results that have customers happily pledging their loyalty. Moreover, HPTs have significantly lower turnover rates compared to other similar teams, as their ability to manage conflicts and disagreements leads to a more engaging and satisfying work environment.


So, how do they achieve this? They think systemically. They use a comprehensive approach to managing conflict that looks through three lenses:


The "It" Lens—Examining the Structural Elements

The "It" involves taking a critical look at the structural elements shaping your team—strategy, goals, roles, processes, and whether they're aligned and working effectively. Are roles and responsibilities unclear, potentially leading to territoriality and power struggles? Are goals misaligned, possibly sparking heated disagreements over priorities?


HPTs often start by laying a foundation in which they optimize these environmental factors. In a North Bay organization I worked with, we reduced infighting by defining team norms and processes. Regarding conflicts and disagreements, they agreed what they would and would not do—“we will ask questions that lead to data-rich conversations,” and “we will not dominate conversations or state opinions as facts.”


In another case, I saw mid-level managers minimize conflict on the frontlines by respectfully and yet firmly requesting more strategic guidance from the executive suite. These managers had been through my foundational leadership workshop and in a follow-up practice session I helped  them define what they wanted out of these conversations and practice speaking with their bosses.


The "We" Lens—Building Trust and Alignment

A Harvard Business Review article, "The High Cost of Low Trust," by Tony Simons, points to an interesting finding. Organizations whose managers follow through on promises and demonstrate the values they preach are substantially more profitable than those whose managers are incongruent. This link was so strong that even a slight improvement in an organization's "trust score" could be expected to increase their profitability. Simons noted that no other single aspect of manager behavior had a greater impact on profits.


It's no surprise that HPTs work hard to strengthen and maintain relationships. When trust runs high, teammates feel empowered to take risks, freely admitting mistakes and proposing bold ideas. They expect positive intent during disagreements and stay focused on productive resolutions. When trust is low, conflicts can devolve into ego-driven power struggles.


Team-building exercises, sharing personal stories, connecting around aspirations beyond just the day-to-day work (e.g., “tell us about three people you admire and why”)—HPTs lean on tools like these to develop trust and alignment. This fortifies them against conflicts splintering into dysfunction and helps them retain their talent.


The "I" Lens—Understanding Individual Perspectives

High emotional intelligence is a superpower for HPTs. While they don't ignore problematic behaviors, their focus during conflict includes recognition of each individual's perspectives, motivations, and biases.


Recognizing and understanding these human factors can help teams defuse conflict before it erupts. A careful look through the "I" lens—at ourselves and others—makes it easier for any given team member to shift their mindset from "that person's a jerk" to "that person's in pain—and could use some compassion." With greater self-awareness, HPTs transform breakdowns into breakthroughs.


Embracing the Paradox

HPTs do not tend to treat conflict as the enemy. Rather, they embrace an inherent paradox—that creation and innovation is often impossible without some friction. Lively debates, healthy tensions, productive disagreements... these are sparks that can refine cool, intellectual ideas into hot competitive advantages.

HPTs do not tend to treat conflict as the enemy. Rather, they embrace an inherent paradox—that creation and innovation is often impossible without some friction. Lively debates, healthy tensions, productive disagreements... these are sparks that can refine cool, intellectual ideas into hot competitive advantages.

The true enemy is unacknowledged conflict running rampant over teams in toxic and unproductive ways. HPTs recognize this and train themselves to think systemically—they turn conflicts into disagreements and harness them by looking through the "It," "We," and "I" lenses.


By embracing this paradox, they not only deliver higher quality products faster and with minimal turnover, they future-proof their organizations for long-term high performance. In today's world of endless pivots and disruptions, that’s a powerful secret weapon.


 

Come join us for my next Leadership and the Middle Path workshop and take your leadership skills to the next level.

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