Reflection: Building High Performing Teams Through Conflict

By 2nd January 2020 March 27th, 2020 Conflict Resolution Skills Tips

How To Build High Performing Teams Through Conflict

The road to high performing teams is as exciting as it is fraught.  No journey involving people working together will be smooth.  Think about life in a family or a sports team. Have you never argued?  Too many books and blogs hide from the fact that conflict in teams is necessary.  Many articles consider elements like having difficult conversations as the only factor.  While conflict resolution is essential to move on, more need to find the point of the conflict.  Conflict is a requirement rather than something to be avoided.  Conflict and harmony go hand in hand just as they do with families and teams outside the workplace.  The point of the leader is to manage conflict effectively by allowing it to develop.  More than this, it is about working through the conflict while finding out its cause, purpose and effect.

Imagine the scene, we all agree and congratulate each other on a good job and glide through the working day.  Sounds perfect doesn’t it, now ask yourself where does the creativity come from, the differing viewpoints and opposition.  As stated in previous reflections, opposition provides a point of view from internal values.  The disagreement can come from a clash of personalities which is an obstacle to overcome.  The advantage of conflict is we get to see what drives personal motivation to achieve a better outcome.  Opposition for opposition’s sake creates nothing.  In this instance, a stake in the ground is necessary.  These are basic rules of team building. One of those is that when you oppose an idea or process, you have to state why. And the manager’s role is to dig for that element of dislike, what is it that’s doesn’t sit comfortably?

High Performing Team Basics, A Foundational Approach

You can view building a team as a better option than taking over one.  You can set your own agenda and have a ready purpose.  On the flip side, recruiting a new team brings its disadvantages.  Synergy or history is yet to build up. Indeed, a practical unknown that requires discovering exists.  Each new team member will bring with them their own experience with previous teams and their own skillset.  The skills they do bring are the essential building blocks in the initial stages.  This is where new managers often fail, especially when they do not receive proper guidance and mentorship.  The temptation to build a team on fit and personality can take over.  As a result of this, early performance can suffer, and the team itself look for identity rather than achievement.  In the formative stages, a purposeful vision-driven through the strength of the leader is critical.

A group of people doing a meeting around a table

Each new team member will bring with them their own experience with previous teams and their own skillset.

Having a purpose sets the agenda for everyone and aids with the team question, ‘where is my place in the team’.  Through this, each individual can assess their skill and reinforce their place in the team.  Very simply, they can state ‘without me, you won’t have…’.  This sense of belonging provides the foundation. And that of their place in the team and the performance expectation. This works even with an existing team that a leader takes over.  While the purpose may remain the same, the leadership doesn’t have to.  Of course, try to understand the historical context, but don’t let this cloud your view.  Resetting the purpose and presenting this as a forward-looking action is necessary for this instance.  This reinforcement can sound like “…I appreciate I keep reinforcing the purpose; this is a critical stage and focus on the objective is important”.

Team and Personal Accountability

A few years ago, I took up a task to build a training team where there previously wasn’t one.  An exciting time as the need and purpose were very clear in aiding the operation.  There was a buzz about the new team and an expectation for it to perform at a high level, so some pressure existed.

Jenga blocks on top of a barrel

A series of meetings drew out one issue; a team member was not pulling their weight.

Recruitment went well as I was clear on the types of skills that the team required.  Initial team meetings went well with the reinforcement of the main purpose backed by senior managers.  We provided every effort to ensure the team knew the purpose. In every session, we talked it through for clarity.  Setting the scene was relatively straightforward as the goal was clear.  Something was missing, though. The outputs were not what the team required in the early stages.  A series of meetings drew out one issue; a team member was not pulling their weight.

They had, on paper, the right technical skill; we were just not seeing this.  In one meeting they declared, ‘I thought it would be more of a laugh than this, it’s all work and no play’. We had to replace the team member.  One element I had missed was the individual accountability. I was so focused on setting the vision; I just didn’t set an individual agenda.  Shortly after, another team member chose to leave for similar reasons, which was a huge learning opportunity for me.

The purpose was right. I needed to ensure each individual heard it.  On reflection, the team turned into a type of club, hard to get into yet easily dropped out of.  The learning for me was beyond setting the team goal and making accountability more explicit.  After the initial inward chaos, we managed to build a reliable team that was professional and delivered solid outcomes.

Harmony And Conflict

Creating a harmonious and high performing team is hard work; conflict is necessary to understand the team members.  When we can see conflict and respect it, we should search for clarity in the opposition rather than hide from dealing with it.  This is a positive approach, from the point of dignity and respect for that individual.  Some suggestions for immediate positive impact are:

  • When conflict occurs, manage it through discussion
  • Keep the dialogue going, let team members tell others why they feel the conflict
  • Check-in every day, allow them to tell you how they really are
  • Clarify, ensure everyone gets it and state where you are.
  • No team is perfect, behind closed doors let team members out their frustrations
  • Reward with sincerity, nobody likes a thank you for breathing, make it personal, what did they do
  • Share feedback from outside of the team about them.

Final Thoughts

Taking over a team or even beginning a new one is an opportunity to create something new and exciting.  The people within it need to feel that their input is valued and is a part of a significant output.  Managers can often be so focused on the output that they forget the people and in cases like these, conflict can be overlooked.  The result is that conflict never gets resolved and we don’t understand what is driving it.  How can you achieve a high performing team when you don’t understand the individuals and their values?  To achieve high performance, managers and leaders require a variety of skills, personal accountability and trust for the members.  These are latent; they need respectful dialogue with focus and purpose for everyone to view to right outcomes.  Once on that track, expect change from within the team.

Reflect on your approach, welcome conflict for the right reasons.  Through discussion and initially those problematic conversations, members will begin to expect the challenge, which will then form the basis of quality conversations with the right outcomes.

Through conflict, harmony can be achieved, done right, this barrier to high performance is removed.


For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Conflict Resolution Skills and our Conflict Resolution Skills YouTube Channel. Also, check out our award-winning blog to see more Conflict Resolution Skills Tips and articles.

Will Clement

About Will Clement

Will Clement is an organisational development manager in the NHS. Will’s main aim is to create contemporary learning that bring theory into practice. Will delivers with breath taking honesty and compassion - while having fun in the process. His work is centred on understanding individuals, helping them deploy their strengths. Like most things in Will’s life, his approach is powerful, simple and effective. He is a highly engaging and thought-provoking speaker. A no nonsense, back to basics approach, which draws on 20 years training and management experience. His work encourages individuals to seize the opportunity, enjoy relationships, succeed at work and learn how to respond to adverse situations with a positive approach. Will has worked in public, private and education sectors, including the Royal Mail, Leeds Met University, the AA plc and the NHS. Will holds a BA (Hons) in Education and Professional Development and a Masters In Business Administration (MBA) from York St John University.

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