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Conflict with Your Team is Painful but Sometimes Necessary

One of the major roles of a leader is to ensure that the team works well together and is making decisions that honor and advance the values of the company. The opportunities for a team member (or the leader) to run afoul of one of these key principles are innumerable. We make so many decisions every day that it is hard to always support team members or make value-consistent decisions.

As leaders we want to encourage our teams to take the initiative, to make decisions independently and be self starters. Leaders know they need to support the vast majority of these decisions if we expect the team to continue to be autonomous. Yet, there are times that a decision is so wrong, or a team member’s behavior is so contrary to the company’s values that the leader needs to confront it.

However, sometimes it is difficult to ascertain when to intervene or when to let the chips fall where they may. The tendency of leaders, indeed of all humans, is to avoid conflict so we are likely to let too many things slide. No one likes confrontation and no one likes conflict. As we seek comfort, we tend to avoid the conflict that will inevitably make us, at least temporarily, less sanguine. Ironically, however, that more often than not, the meetings we fear go relatively well and by addressing a problem early, it tends not to balloon into a bigger issue.

Two types of issues require a leader to step in and initiate a conversation. The first is when a team member’s action obviously undermines another team member or violates the norms of the company. If the leader does not step in, she is sending a number of negative messages. She is telling the person who made the error that the company is not willing to engage in discomfort. Equally importantly, that message is going to the rest of the team as well. For an organization to believe in something, it must work to uphold those beliefs. In honesty, these issues are usually easy to identify and most leaders will deal with them, if somewhat, reluctantly.

The second type of issue is when a team member’s actions are undermining the team but in very subtle ways. For instance, it can be difficult to ascertain if a team member is engaging in authentic debate or undercutting a peer. The actions and words can look very similar but the different motivation makes a huge difference. These behaviors are harder to identify and easier to overlook.

Here is an illustrative story. Right after I promoted a teacher into leadership, she began to work very closely with and take directions from a more senior member of the team. Indeed, they were seen by the staff as so close that I advised the less experienced member of the duo to put some space between her and her mentor to increase her leadership credibility and hone her own leadership style.

Strangely and inexplicably at least to me, a year or so later, these two team members began to subtly undermine each other at meetings and did not seem to be working well together. While I noticed the behavior, I did not intervene, convincing myself that they were close, whatever the issue was it would resolve itself without me, and I did not want to be seen taking sides in the conflict. It was not until I heard from a teacher that the faculty felt the tension between the two leaders that I intervened. I met with both team members separately and then together. The tension between them eased some and they began to work together more effectively again.

I knew that I should have intervened earlier but let my distaste for having difficult conversations prevented me from being the leader I could and should have been.


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