The ability for you and your team to effectively engage in conflict may not be all that easy or fun, but it’s fundamental to your performance, both individually and collectively.
As important as engaging in conflict is to the culture and performance of your team, there are both healthy and unhealthy ways of doing it.
Here are seven things to remember when dealing with a conflict or disagreement—one-on-one, within a group, or within your entire team:
- Take responsibility. This is not about pointing fingers or figuring out who’s at fault; it’s about owning up to the situation and recognizing that we’re a part of the issue. It’s also about owning our emotions and reactions in an authentic, healthy way.
- Address the conflict directly. Conflicts are always handled most successfully when they’re dealt with directly and promptly. Be real and vulnerable when you disagree with someone, or when you have an issue to address, but make sure to do so as soon as possible. Don’t let it fester.
- Seek first to understand. As challenging as it can be, the best approach in any conflict situation is to listen with as much understanding and empathy as possible— even when we’re feeling angry or defensive. If we can understand where the other person or people are coming from, even if we don’t agree, we have a good chance of being able to work things out.
- Use “I” statements. If someone does or says something and we have a specific reaction to it, that’s real. If we judge someone, make a generalization about them, or accuse them of something, not only is it factually untrue (it’s just our opinion), it will most likely trigger a defensive response. Using “I” statements allows us to speak from a place of authenticity and ownership, ideally without blame or judgment. There’s a big difference when we say “I’m feeling frustrated” versus “You are frustrating.”
- Go for a win-win. The only real way to have a conflict resolved authentically is when it’s a true win-win for everyone involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each person gets his or her way. It does, however, mean that everyone gets heard, honored, and listened to. And, when and if possible—we make compromises that leave everyone empowered and in partnership.
- Acknowledge others. Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation, a situation that involves a few people, or a discussion that includes the whole team, acknowledgment is essential to resolving conflict effectively. Thank the other people involved in the conflict for being willing and able to engage. Thank them for their courage and their truth. Acknowledgment isn’t about agreement; it’s about honoring and appreciating the willingness to have a tough conversation, which is brave all the way around.
- Get support and have compassion. Conflicts often bring up fear and cut to the core of our most vulnerable insecurities. Therefore, it’s critical to reach out for authentic support (not necessarily agreement on the topic) from those who can help us work through the issue and resolve it in a healthy and responsible way. It’s also important to have compassion with ourselves and others as we attempt to engage in these conversations. Usually they aren’t fun or easy, but they are necessary for us personally, for our relationships, and for the success of the team.
* This is an excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published in paperback by Hay House Business, March, 2022
I’ve been a part of lots of teams, in sports and business, and over the past 20 years I’ve had a chance to work with many high-performing teams, at companies like Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Schwab, eBay, and others.
I’ve also studied the core elements of team achievement. Through all of my experience and research, I’ve found that two conditions most effectively enable a team to create a culture of high performance, trust, and belonging:
- Caring About Each Other. Caring about the people on our team is about making sure they are nurtured and valued—not just for what they do, but for who they are. It also has to do with it being safe for us to make mistakes, ask for help, speak up, be ourselves, and disagree.
This is about feeling psychologically safe, knowing we’re included and that we belong, and having the confidence to have tough, but important conversations. Caring environments are also filled with a genuine sense of kindness, compassion, and appreciation, where people are seen and supported as human beings.
- Challenging Each Other. Challenging each other is about having high expectations, which are essential for people and teams to thrive. But these expectations have to be healthy—meaning there is a high standard of excellence, not an insatiable, unhealthy pressure to be perfect. We almost always get what we expect from others; however, if we expect perfection, everyone falls short and people aren’t set up to succeed.
Healthy high expectations are about setting a high bar and challenging everyone (our teammates and ourselves) to be the absolute best we can be. This also has to do with being clear about our standards and goals, holding each other accountable, fully committing ourselves to the team, and demanding excellence from one another in a healthy and empowering way.
We often think that in order to have a high bar and push each other we can’t also be caring. Or we think that if we care about and nurture one another, we can’t also expect a lot from our teammates. Actually, the goal for us as team members, leaders, and teams as a whole is to be able do both at the same time. It’s not one of these things at the expense of the other, it’s being able to do them simultaneously and passionately.
Creating an environment that supports both caring about and challenging each other takes courage on everyone’s part, and at times goes against conventional wisdom. But being willing to focus on both of these things, and encouraging others to do the same, creates the conditions for everyone to succeed at the highest level.
This combination of caring about and challenging each other is the secret sauce of high-performing teams.
Given my sports background I refer to teams who operate and perform this was as “championship teams.” There’s an important difference between a championship team and a team of champions.
A championship team doesn’t necessarily always win, but they play the game the right way, with passion, and with a commitment to one another as well as to the ultimate result. This type of team knows that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s often chemistry and the below-the-line intangibles that we’ve been talking about throughout this book that separate the good teams from the great ones.
Teams of champions, on the other hand, might have great talent and motivated people, but they’re often more focused on their own individual success. Championship teams know that talent is important, but they focus on the collective success of the team and the highest vision and goals of the group.
As basketball legend Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
Championship teams not only care about and challenge each other, they also know the difference between their “role” and their “job.”
When most of us think about our “job,” we think of what we do—engineering, sales, project management, marketing, human resources, legal, operations, design, finance, and so forth. While these descriptions may encapsulate what we do and the title we hold, they’re not actually our job.
If we’re part of a team, we each have a functional role, of course, but our job is to help fulfill the goals, mission, and purpose of the team and company we belong to, whatever they may be. In other words, we’re there to do whatever we can to help the team win.
The challenge is that most of us take pride in our role and we want to do it really well, which is great. However, when we put our role (what we do specifically) over our job (helping the team win), things can get murky; our personal goals become more important to us than the goals of the team and organization.
It takes commitment and courage, but groups and companies made up of people who understand this simple yet important distinction—who realize that everyone on the team has essentially the same job but different roles—have the ability to succeed at the highest level and with the most collaborative environment.
What can you do to make sure that your team cares about and challenges each other, understands the difference between their role and their job, and can truly operate as a championship team? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below…
* This is an excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published in paperback by Hay House Business, March 2022
A lot has happened in the past few years since my book, We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging, was first published in the spring of 2020. I completed the manuscript for this book (which was just released this week in paperback) at the end of 2019. I had no idea it would come out amid a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed how we live and work.
I’ve learned a lot about team performance over the past two decades through my research, writing, speaking, and consulting with some of the top companies in the world. And I’ve also learned a great deal over the past two years as we’ve all navigated the challenges of COVID-19. I’ve witnessed first-hand how important and challenging teamwork has been for so many of the people, leaders, and teams I work with.
Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, as we were being asked to stay at home and things were incredibly uncertain and chaotic, everyone from Anderson Cooper to Mike Pence to CEOs of some of the world’s biggest brands were using the phrase, “We’re all in this together.”
Over the next few months, as people were reading my new book and hearing me speak (via my podcast, social media, or virtual speaking engagements) about this idea of all of us being in it together, I started to have some interesting and challenging conversations. Of the many things I heard people say, share, and ask, one question that kept coming up was, “Are we really all in this together?”
In it Together?
I initially heard this question quite a bit from leaders who were having to make difficult decisions about furloughs, layoffs, and the future of their teams and businesses. They were trying to figure out how to responsibly make these hard decisions and how to authentically communicate with their employees, especially given the intense uncertainty and fear at that time. There also seemed to be some real “winners” and “losers” from an economic perspective, particularly in those early days.
After the brutal killing of George Floyd in late May of 2020 and the profound national and global response to both this horrific tragedy and the systemic nature of injustice…discussions about racism, inequality, social justice, and more became front and center in just about every aspect of society, including and especially the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
I continued to have hard but important conversations with people who earnestly pushed back on the notion of us all being in it together, pointing out that the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and so many other things were painfully exemplifying the disparities in our country and our world.
As I began to grapple with all of this more deeply, it became clear to me that we’re actually all in the same storm, but we’re in different boats.
And while this is always true to some degree, during what we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years, it’s become increasingly more important to reckon with this fundamental dynamic—same storm, different boats.
Of course, it’s natural and understandable for us to focus on what’s going on in our own boat, especially if we’re taking on water, there are some real issues with our stability, or we don’t feel safe.
And, paradoxically, one of the most important things we can do during a storm is to look up and see what’s going on in the boats of the people around us—so we can both ask for and offer support as we all try to make our way to smoother water.
In thinking about all that has happened over the past few years and reflecting on the many things that I’ve learned through partnering with so many people, leaders, teams, and organizations as they’ve been navigating the various challenges of the pandemic, there are several important themes that have emerged from my research and experience during this time.
1) We’re stronger and more resilient than we realized
If I had told you at the end of 2019, “Here’s what’s about to happen over the next few years…,” you probably wouldn’t have believed me. And even if you somehow trusted that what I was saying was true, you most likely would’ve thought that there’s no way that you, your family, and your team could have continued to function in an effective way.
And yet, here we are. Battered, bruised, and weary…but still going, despite all the change, pain, disruption, loss, uncertainty, grief, and more that we’ve experienced. This whole thing has been incredibly challenging for just about everyone I know and have worked with, myself included. However, it has also taught us so much and reminded us of our ability to adjust, pivot, and persevere, even when things get hard and we don’t think we can keep going.
2) We can’t opt-out of dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion at work or in society
These issues are challenging, personal, emotional, complex, and they impact each of us differently. For those of us, like myself, as a straight, white, cisgender, American man, who have had the privilege of not often thinking about or navigating issues of race, gender, orientation, and more, there’s been a humbling realization of the differences that our friends, colleagues, and co-workers experience on a regular basis who don’t have the same identity that we do.
If we’re going to create healthy environments that are equitable and ones where people genuinely feel a sense of belonging, we must continue to reckon with these issues—talk about them, deal with them, educate ourselves, understand each other better, and make meaningful changes to how we think, talk, act, lead, hire, make decisions, and operate. I do believe that progress has been made and awareness has been raised…and we still have a lot of work to do on this front.
3) Mental health is as important, if not more so, than physical health
The pandemic and all that we’ve gone through over these past few years have created a global mental health crisis that we’re still in the midst of today. This crisis has clearly impacted certain people and communities more significantly than others but has touched all of us. Each of us has dealt with loss, grief, anxiety, depression, and so much more in the past two years—either directly, with people close to us, and/or with those who are just one or two degrees separated from us.
Thinking about, talking about, and addressing mental health challenges are all fundamental to our personal well-being, as well as the health and success of our teams and organizations. While these issues are personal, they are no longer things we can avoid dealing with in our professional lives. Just as physical well-being has become more of a focus over the past few decades in many organizations and industries, mental and emotional well-being needs as much or more attention, especially these days.
4) Working remotely poses real challenges, but also some opportunities
There are clearly certain things we can do virtually almost as effectively as when we’re in the office. And there are some aspects of working from home that are convenient, efficient, and even enjoyable. However, I think we’ve also realized that so much gets missed when we’re not together, and it’s incredibly difficult to stay connected to one another on a human level when we’re not in the same physical location.
A big part of team performance and company culture comes from us spending time together in the same room, having shared experiences, and being able to look each other in the eye and have in-person conversations. Figuring out how we can stay connected to one another in an authentic and meaningful way while working remotely isn’t easy, but it’s essential.
This has been challenging throughout the pandemic and will continue to be something to figure out as we get to the other side. We’ll need to be mindful, intentional, and flexible as we navigate this personally and collectively.
5) People, relationships, and team performance are essential
On the one hand, we’ve been physically separated from so many of the important people in our lives and those with whom we work. Yet, paradoxically, we’ve been reminded of our common humanity as we’ve done our best to make our way through the various storms we’ve experienced. Staying connected to one another through all of this has been both more difficult and more important than ever.
The nature of the pandemic and all the other issues that we’ve been grappling with that contribute to disconnection, separation, misunderstanding, isolation, and more have built into them a larger common experience of the fundamental vulnerability of being human.
When it comes right down to it, our success or failure and our experience of not only work but life in general, has a lot to do with the people we interact with on a regular basis.
My baseball coach at Stanford University, Dean Stotz, used to always say to us, “The quality of your life is based on the quality of your relationships.” He was right back then when he said that…and these past two years have reminded us of this important truth.
As challenging as all of this has been and as unknown as what lies ahead may be, if we’re able and willing to lean on those around us, we can remind ourselves that we’re not alone—and even with the difficulties we face and the inherent paradox of all of this, we truly are all in this together.
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A mentor of mine said something to me years ago that I think about and reference often…
“Mike, you know what stands between you and the kind of relationships you really want to have with people? It’s probably a 10-minute, sweaty-palmed conversation you’re too afraid to have. If you get good at those 10-minute, sweaty-palmed conversations, you’ll have fantastic relationships—you’ll resolve conflicts, build trust, and be able to work through things,” he said.
He went on to say, “These conversations will help you get to know people who are different from you, talk about important issues that need to be addressed, and be able to give and receive feedback that’s necessary to everyone’s growth and success. But if you avoid them, as most of us do because they can be hard, uncomfortable, and sometimes messy, you’ll simply be a victim of whomever you live with, work with, and interact with in life.”
His wisdom was spot on. These sweaty-palmed conversations often involve talking about a touchy subject, engaging in an important debate or conflict, giving or receiving some hard but essential feedback, or some combination of these things. And our ability to engage in these types of conversations effectively as a group has everything to do with our team’s performance, trust, and culture.
According to Dr. Bernie Mayer, professor of conflict resolution at the Werner Institute at Creighton University and author of The Conflict Paradox, healthy conflict is essential for teams to perform their best.
Dr. Mayer says, “Unless we can empower people to deal with problems that arise along the way, to face difficulties, to recognize and adjust when strategies aren’t working or are impossible to implement, to help those who are struggling, to handle the inevitable tensions and conflicts that challenging work engenders, and to maintain a positive attitude about that work, we cannot build a truly effective team, unit or organization.” If conflict isn’t dealt with directly, he adds, “problems fester, important views are squelched, and effective communication is inhibited.”
The ability for you and your team to effectively engage in conflict may not be all that easy or fun, but it’s fundamental to your performance, both individually and collectively. When I speak to people, leaders, and teams about this important topic, I often ask, “When you hear the word conflict, what comes to mind?”
In response to this, I hear things like, “fight, argument, disagreement, debate, anger, etc.” They’re likely thinking of a scenario like the one I had with that man on the plane.
However, when I then ask, “What becomes available when we address and resolve a conflict?” people often say, “new ideas, more trust, solutions to problems, understanding, connection,” and more.
While most of us don’t particularly enjoy conflict, we all know how valuable and important it is, especially to our teams, our work, and to building a strong culture and performing at the highest level. It’s really about our relationship to conflict and our fear about it that makes it difficult, more so than the conflict itself.
A cross-cultural study conducted by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, found that conflict is both liberating and fundamental to team success. According to the study, teams that can engage effectively in tough conversations have a significant competitive advantage over their counterparts—generating better ideas, more creativity, and greater innovation.
Clearly it takes courage to have these types of sweaty-palmed conversations (which sometimes take more than 10 minutes, of course) and to engage in conflict directly. It’s vulnerable and often frightening for several reasons.
However, usually what’s most at risk is our ego. And although there are no guarantees, most of us have learned the hard way that it’s usually better to address a conflict directly than to avoid it, which often causes it to fester and get worse. We also know that not being willing to have these types of conversations is ultimately way more damaging to us, our relationships, and our team than taking the risk and engaging.
Embracing conflict in a healthy way is important for us personally and also for our team. It’s essential to our ability to connect with each other, understand one another, and create the kinds of solutions, ideas, and outcomes that are necessary for our success. And, if we’re in leadership positions and part of a leadership team, engaging in these sweaty-palmed conversations courageously and effectively is not only important for the performance of our team, it also has a critical impact on the culture of the organization.
* This is an adapted excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published in paperback by Hay House Business, March, 2022
Creating a strong team culture of high performance, trust, and belonging is essential to success, although it can be incredibly challenging to do, especially these days.
When I was working on my latest book a few years ago, We’re All in This Together (which is just about to come out in paperback), I had no idea about the devastating global pandemic that would change the way we live and work in just about every way.
Now more than ever, for our teams to navigate these continual uncertain times successfully, we must come together, connect authentically, and lean on each other in an ongoing, healthy, and sustainable way.
For the past two decades, I’ve been studying, researching, speaking, and writing about the qualities of great teams. I’ve been honored to partner with organizations like Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Schwab, eBay, Genentech, Gap, the NBA, the Oakland A’s, and so many others—helping them enhance the culture and performance of their teams.
In addition to these large, well-known brands, I’ve also worked with small businesses, government agencies, educational institutions, nonprofits, local school districts, and more.
And while each team and organization have their own unique challenges, goals, and dynamics, there are some universal qualities that allow teams to effectively collaborate, trust each other, and perform at the highest level—even and especially amid change, challenge, and uncertainty.
4 Keys to Creating a Team Culture of High Performance
Here are the four key traits of high performing teams that I’ve learned through my research and experience:
1. Create psychological safety
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for risk-taking. People on teams with psychological safety have a sense of confidence that their team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up or taking risks.
The team climate is characterized by an atmosphere of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves without fear of negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career.
Essentially, psychological safety is trust at a group level.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has researched and written extensively about psychological safety over the past 20 years. “It’s not enough for organizations to simply hire talent,” she says. “If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.”
A 2017 Gallup study found that only three in ten employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup calculated that by “moving the ratio to six in ten employees, organizations could realize a 27 percent reduction in turnover, a 40 percent reduction in safety incidents, and a 12 percent increase in productivity.”
2. Focus on inclusion and belonging
An essential element of creating a safe environment that allows people to trust each other, collaborate with one another and perform at their highest level as a team is inclusion and belonging.
There are countless studies linking inclusion to higher profits, increased engagement scores, and enhanced business results.
For example, according to a study of 140 U.S. companies by Accenture alongside the American Association of People with Disabilities, those that offered the most inclusive working environment for employees with disabilities achieved an average 28 percent higher revenue, 30 percent greater economic profit margins, and twice the net income of their industry peers between 2015 and 2018.
Inclusion means “having respect for and appreciation of differences in ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, education, and religion.” It also means “actively involving everyone’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives, approaches, and styles to maximize business success.”
And, as important as it is for us to focus on both diversity and inclusion, the ultimate goal is to create an environment on the team and in the company where everyone feels as though they belong, regardless of who they are, the role they have, and their background.
3. Embrace sweaty-palmed conversations
Great teams embrace conflict and feedback as natural and important aspects of growth, collaboration, and success. This means they must be willing to have those awkward, uncomfortable, sweaty-palmed conversations with each other.
The problem is that because conflict and feedback can be hard, most teams aren’t very good at it.
However, when team members create an environment conducive to having healthy and productive conflict, they can connect more deeply, navigate challenges effectively, give each other feedback in a way that makes everyone better, and innovate in ways that allow them to thrive.
Research conducted by CPP Inc., publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, has shown that in the U.S., workplace conflict costs companies more than $350 billion a year. And that figure reflects just the time people spend dealing with conflict; it doesn’t include the emotional, psychological, and physical toll it takes on people personally.
Nate Regier, author of Conflict Without Casualties, whom I had a chance to interview on my podcast, says, “The purpose of conflict is to create, not destroy.”
4. Care about and challenge each other
What I’ve seen, experienced, and learned about high-performing teams over the years is that they understand and have a balance of two important things at the same time: Caring About Each Other and Challenging Each Other.
Both of these are essential and must be focused on with the same level of intensity for the team and all of its members to perform at the highest level.
For a team to thrive, there must be a deep level of trust that everyone has each other’s backs, has good intentions, and is moving in the same direction together.
In a piece published in the Harvard Business Review in 2017, neuroeconomist Paul Zak writes, “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74 percent less stress, 50 percent higher productivity, and 76 percent more engagement.”
In other words, creating a strong culture of trust, as well as an environment where people know they’re cared about and supported by their teammates, leads to significantly greater engagement and performance.
In addition to building and maintaining this level of trust and care for one another, great teams commit to challenging each other respectfully and passionately to be their absolute best, both personally and collectively.
The Importance of Embodying These Teamwork Traits Right Now
When teams understand, practice, and embody these four key traits, they can create a team culture of high performance, trust, and belonging. Doing this allows them to thrive, even and especially when facing significant uncertainty and challenges as we are these days.
This is an adapted excerpt from the book We’re All in This Together by Mike Robbins, published by Hay House Business, March 2022 (paperback)
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