ARTWORK Jeff Perrott, Burden of Good, 2014 Oil on linenSPOTLIGHT
SPOTLIGHT ON MANAGING TEAMS

How to Preempt Team ConflictBY GINKA TOEGEL AND JEAN-LOUIS BARSOUX
Team conflict can add value or destroy it. Good conflict fosters respectful debate and yields
mutually agreed-upon solutions that are often far superior to those first offered. Bad conflict occurs when team members simply can’t get past their differences, killing productivity and stifling innovation.
Ginka Toegel is a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jean-Louis Barsoux is a senior research fellow at IMD.
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Disparate opinions aren’t the root of the problem, however. Most destructive conflict stems from something deeper: a perceived incompatibility in the way various team members operate due to any number of factors, including personality, industry, race, gender, and age. The conventional approach to working through such conflict is to respond to clashes as they arise or wait until there is clear evi-dence of a problem before addressing it. But these approaches routinely fail because they allow frustra-tions to build for too long, making it difficult to reset negative impressions and restore trust.
In our 25 years of researching team dynam-ics, coaching teams in Fortune 500 corporations, and teaching thousands of executives at Duke University, London Business School, and IMD, we’ve found that a proactive approach is much more effective. When you surface differences before a team starts work—even when the group seems homogeneous and harmonious—you can preempt destructive conflict.
We have developed and tested a methodology that focuses on five areas: how people look, act, speak, think, and feel. Team leaders facilitate a se-ries of 20- to 30-minute conversations, encouraging members to express their preferences and expecta-tions in each area, identify the most likely areas of misalignment or friction, and come up with sug-gestions for how those with differing expectations can work together. Through the nonjudgmental exchange of ideas and feedback, teams establish a foundation of trust and understanding and are able to set ground rules for effective collaboration.
Though setting aside time for these conversa-tions up front might seem onerous, we’ve found that it’s a worthwhile investment for any team—new or old, C-suite or frontline—that will be collaborat-ing on significant work for an extended period of time. Leaders need no special training to facilitate
the discussions. Indeed, we’ve found that managers can master these conflict-prevention skills far more easily than those required for conflict resolution.
Five ConversationsBecause the five conversations we propose go so far beyond typical “getting to know you” chitchat, it’s important to kick them off properly. First, although this may seem obvious, make sure to include ev-eryone on the team and explain why you’re initiat-ing the discussions. You might say something like:
“Working on a team means collaborating with people whose approaches may differ from your own. Let’s explore these differences now, while the pressure is off, so that they don’t catch us by surprise and gen-erate unproductive conflict at an inopportune mo-ment.” Explain that the focus of the discussions will be on the process of work rather than the content.
As the facilitator, make sure that people are com-fortable sharing at their own pace and coach them on how to ask clarifying, nonjudgmental questions of one another. Encourage everyone to begin state-ments with “In my world…” and questions with “In your world…?” This phrasing, borrowed from orga-nizational behavior scholar Edgar Schein, reinforces the idea that underlying sources of differences are irrelevant. What does matter is the attitudes and be-haviors expressed as a result of each person’s cumu-lative personal and professional experience. For ex-ample, the fact that you are assertive may be related to your personality, gender, or culture, but the only thing your colleagues need to know is that you tend to vocalize your opinions in plain terms.
Team members are likely to be hesitant as you be-gin, so ease everyone into the process by volunteer-ing to share first. Once the dialogue gains steam, let others guide (but not dominate) it. Eventually, peo-ple will move from superficial disclosures to deeper discussion. As they listen to the responses of oth-ers and offer their own, they will develop not only a better understanding of their colleagues but also greater self-awareness.
The five topics can be addressed in any order; however, we’ve found the sequence presented here to be the most logical, especially with new teams, because we perceive first how others look and then how they speak and act. Only after observing them for a longer period can we infer how they think or feel. That said, facilitators should not get hung up on the categories, because there is inevitable
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overlap. Likewise, if participants struggle with the “In my world” language, it can be tweaked.
Let’s now consider the five categories in turn.
LOOK: Spotting the DifferenceColleagues routinely make fast judg-ments (especially negative ones) about the character, competence, or status of their peers on the basis of the briefest exposure—what Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, in re-search conducted at Harvard, called
“thin slices” of behavior. These reac-tions are often triggered by differences in the way people present themselves. We unconsciously respond to cues in how they look, move, and dress, in their tone of voice, and in what they say about themselves.
The goal of this conversation is to help team members reflect on how they intend to come across to others—and how they actually do. A good place to begin is a discussion about the driv-ers of status in team members’ respective “worlds.” For example, some people put a premium on job-related characteristics, such as experience, con-nections, and functional background. For oth-ers, status is linked to demographic cues such as age, gender, nationality, and education. Team members can quickly put colleagues off by empha-sizing the wrong credentials, adopting an unsuit-able persona, or even dressing inappropriately for the culture. One executive from the “buttoned-up” banking sector faced this type of conflict when he joined an advertising group. In a team discus-sion, one of his colleagues told him, “The norm here is business casual. So by wearing a suit and tie
at all times, it’s like you think you’re special, and that creates distance.”
A similar situation arose at a heavy-engineering company when a female designer joined its board. Her colorful clothing and introductory comments, which included two literary references, made her pragmatic peers think she valued style over substance, which set her up to be marginalized.
An example that highlights the value of discuss-ing perceptions up front comes from a global food group, where a leadership-development rotation of promising young executives had been creating re-sentment among older subsidiary executives, most notably in the Australian operation. The local team had developed a dysfunctional “keep your head down” attitude and simply tolerated each ambitious MBA until he or she moved on. But when one incom-ing manager engaged his team in the five conversa-tions at the start of his term, he was able to dispel their negative preconceptions and develop far-more-productive relationships than his predecessors had.
ACT: Misjudging BehaviorOn diverse teams, clashing behavioral norms are common sources of trouble. Seemingly trivial gestures can have a dis-proportionate impact, aggravating stereo-types, alienating people, and disrupting communication flows.
Physical boundaries are often a prob-lem area. Consider the media firestorm that retired French soccer player Thierry Henry set off when, as a TV pundit re-acting to surprising breaking news, he touched the thigh of his male English col-league. French culture accepts that sort of interaction, but for television studio
Idea in BriefTHE PROBLEMTeam conflict erupts not because of differences in opinion but because of a perceived incompatibility in the way different team members think and act. When people can’t get past their differences, the resulting clashes kill productivity and stifle innovation.
AN ALTERNATIVE VIEWDifferences in perspective and experience can generate great value, of course. A new methodology helps leaders guide their teams through five conversations before work starts, to build shared understanding and lay the foundation for effective collaboration.
IN PRACTICEThe approach focuses on the process of work rather than the content. Leaders facilitate targeted discussions that explore the varying ways team members look, act, speak, think, and feel, to immunize the team against unproductive conflict when the pressure is on.
QUESTIONS TO ASK “In your world……what makes a good first impression? A bad one? …what do you notice first about others (dress, speech, demeanor)?…what does that make you think about them (rigid, pushy, lazy)?…what intangible credentials do you value (education, experience, connections)?…how do you perceive status differences?”
QUESTIONS TO ASK “In your world……how important are punctuality and time limits? …are there consequences of being late or missing deadlines? …what is a comfortable physical distance for interacting in the workplace? …should people volunteer for assignments or wait to be nominated?…what group behaviors are valued (helping others, not complaining)?”
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shallow self-promotion. Expectations for how much colleagues should help one another, as opposed to contributing individually to the group effort, can also vary widely. For example, a team of soft-ware engineers ran into problems when it became clear that some members were very selective in giving aid to peers, while others did so whenever asked. Those who spent more time helping others understandably began to feel resentful and dis-advantaged, since doing so often interfered with their own work. It’s important to establish team norms around all these behaviors up front to avoid unnecessary antagonism.
SPEAK: Dividing by LanguageCommunication styles have many di-mensions—the words people choose to express themselves, tolerance for candor, humor, pauses and interrup-tions, and so on—and the possibilities for misunderstanding are endless.
Teams made up of people with dif-ferent native languages present signifi-cant challenges in this area. But even when everyone is fluent in a particu-lar language, there may be deep dif-ferences in how individuals express themselves. For example, depending on context, culture, and other fac-tors, “yes” can mean “maybe” or “let’s
try it” or even “no way.” At a European software firm we worked with, two executives were at each other’s throats over what one of them called “bro-ken promises.” Discussion revealed that words one had interpreted as a firm commitment were merely aspirational to his counterpart.
Sometimes even laudable organizational goals can engender troublesome communication dynam-ics: For example, corporations that promote a cul-ture of positivity may end up with employees who are reluctant or afraid to challenge or criticize. As the marketing director of a fast-moving consumer goods firm told us: “You’re not supposed to be negative about people’s ideas. What’s going through the back of your mind is ‘I can’t see this working.’ But what comes out of your mouth is ‘Yeah, that’s great.’”
When teams discuss at the outset how much can-dor is appropriate, they can establish clear guidelines about speaking up or pushing back on others. At
colleagues in the macho world of British football, it was a step too far. Or consider the introverted, high-anxiety executive we worked with whose warm and gregarious peer made him uncomfortable: Their ex-pectations for the proper distance at which to inter-act differed starkly. “I was taking a coffee with him at one of those standing tables,” he remembers. “We literally shuffled round the table as he moved toward me and I tried to reestablish my buffer zone.”
Attitudes about time can stir up conflict, too. People differ widely—even within the same firm or department—with regard to the importance of being punctual and respectful of other people’s schedules. More broadly, the value of keeping projects on pace and hitting milestone deadlines may be paramount to some, whereas others may value flexibility and the ability to nimbly respond as circumstances un-fold. An example comes from a Nordic industrial ma-chinery company that had recurrent tensions in the top team. The non-Nordic executives in the group were deeply frustrated by what they saw as a lack of urgency shown by their Nordic colleagues, and they responded with brusqueness—which, of course, upset their peers. Eventually, the group discussed the situation and set new rules of engagement. But a preemptive conversation would have saved them all a great deal of time and energy.
Differing levels of assertiveness between team members can present problems as well. Male ex-ecutives, for example, or people from individualis-tic corporate and national cultures, often feel quite comfortable volunteering for special assignments or nominating themselves to take on additional respon-sibilities because they consider it a sign of commit-ment, competence, and self-confidence. But others may see those actions as blatant, undignified, and
QUESTIONS TO ASK “In your world……is a promise an aspiration or a guarantee?…which is most important: directness or harmony? …are irony and sarcasm appreciated? …do interruptions signal interest or rudeness? …does silence mean reflection or disengagement?…should dissenting views be aired in public or discussed off-line?…is unsolicited feedback welcome?”
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differences, a facilitator used role play to help the two groups better understand each other’s perspective.
FEEL: Charting Emotionals Team members may differ widely in the intensity of their feelings, how they convey passion in a group, and the way they manage their emotions in the face of disagreement or conflict.
Sometimes enthusiasm can over-whelm peers or fuel skepticism. An extroverted CMO at a logistics com-pany we worked with assumed that the more passion she showed for her ideas, the more responsive the group
would be to them. But her “rah-rah” approach was too much for the introverted, pragmatic CEO. She would start picking apart proposals whenever the CMO got excited. At the other extreme, strong nega-tive emotions—especially overt displays of anger—can be upsetting or intimidating.
Negative feelings can be a sensitive issue to broach, so it’s helpful to start by talking about the kind of context team members are used to. From there, the discussion can get more personal. For ex-ample, in one conversation we facilitated at a con-struction company, an executive told his colleagues that “yelling was common” in his previous work-place—but that it was a habit he wanted to correct. He told us that he had made this disclosure to “keep [him]self honest” in pursuit of that goal.
Early discussions should touch on not only the risks of venting but also the danger of bottling things up. The tendency to signal irritation or discontent indirectly—through withdrawal, sarcasm, and pri-vately complaining about one another—can be just as destructive as volatile outbursts and intimidation. It’s important to address the causes of disengage-ment directly, through open inquiry and debate, and come up with ways to disagree productively.
THE BENEFITS of anticipating and heading off conflict before it becomes destructive are immense. We’ve found that they include greater participation, im-proved creativity, and, ultimately, smarter decision making. As one manager put it: “We still disagree, but there’s less bad blood and a genuine sense of valuing each other’s contributions.”
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a German investment bank, a top team that had been dominated by several assertive consultants adopted a “four sentence” rule—a cutoff for each person’s contributions in meetings—as a way to encourage taking turns and give more-reserved members a chance to contribute. At Heineken USA, board mem-bers use little toy horses that sit on the conference table to accomplish the same goal: If you’re talking and someone tips one over, you know you’re beating a dead horse and it’s time to move on.
THINK: Occupying Different Mindsets Perhaps the biggest source of conflict on teams stems from the way in which members think about the work they’re doing. Their varied personalities and experiences make them alert to vary-ing signals and cause them to take dif-ferent approaches to problem solving and decision making. This can result in their working at cross-purposes. As one executive with a U.S. apparel com-pany noted: “There is often tension between the ready-fire-aim types on our team and the more analytical colleagues.”
We found this dynamic in a new-product team at a Dutch consumer goods company. Members’ cognitive styles differed greatly, particularly with regard to methodical versus intuitive thinking. Once aware of the problem, the project manager initiated discussions about ways to rotate leadership of the project, matching team needs to mindsets. During the more creative and conceptual phases, the free-thinkers would be in charge, while analytical and detail-oriented members would take over evalua-tion, organization, and implementation activities. All members came to understand the value of the different approaches.
Teams also need to find alignment on tolerance for risk and shifting priorities. A striking example comes from a biotech team made up of scientists and executives. By virtue of their training, the scientists embraced experimentation, accepted failure as part of the discovery process, and valued the continued pursuit of breakthroughs, regardless of time hori-zon or potential for commercial applications. That mindset jarred their MBA-trained peers, who sought predictability in results and preferred to kill projects that failed to meet expectations. To bridge those
QUESTIONS TO ASK “In your world……is uncertainty viewed as a threat or an opportunity? …what’s more important: the big picture or the details?…is it better to be reliable or flexible?…what is the attitude toward failure? …how do people tolerate deviations from the plan?”
QUESTIONS TO ASK “In your world……what emotions (positive and negative) are acceptable and unacceptable to display in a business context? …how do people express anger or enthusiasm?…how would you react if you were annoyed with a teammate (with silence, body language, humor, through a third party)?”
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HOW TO PREEMPT TEAM CONFLICT

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