Posted: February 26th, 2023

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Change and conflict often go hand-in-hand.  Briefly discuss a difficult change workplace experience and describe the conflict that took place as a part of this change.  

According to the readings, what did you (or a team leader) do right and/or wrong to lead the organization through this change/conflict? 

Applying the readings and especially the podcast, what could have been done to improve the change process? 

What was a key takeaway (or an “aha”) from the podcast that you can apply in your life?

ARTWORK Jeff Perrott, Burden of Good, 2014
Oil on linenSPOTLIGHT

SPOTLIGHT ON MANAGING TEAMS

How to
Preempt
Team Conflict
BY 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.

June 2016 Harvard Business Review 79

HBR.ORG

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 Conversations
Because 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

We unconsciously
respond to cues
in how people look,
move, and dress.
80  Harvard Business Review June 2016

SPOTLIGHT ON MANAGING TEAMS

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 Difference
Colleagues 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 Behavior
On 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 Brief
THE PROBLEM
Team 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 VIEW
Differences 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 PRACTICE
The 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)?”

June 2016 Harvard Business Review 81

HBR.ORG

HOW TO PREEMPT TEAM CONFLICT

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 Language
Communication 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?”

Differing attitudes
about the
importance of
deadlines often
stir up conflict.
82  Harvard Business Review June 2016

SPOTLIGHT ON MANAGING TEAMS

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.”

HBR Reprint R1606F

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)?”

HBR.ORG

June 2016 Harvard Business Review 83

HOW TO PREEMPT TEAM CONFLICT

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> How to Be a Successful Change Leader

LEADING EFFECTIVELY ARTICLE

How to Be a Successful Change
Leader

Great Change Leaders Focus on
People & Process
Successful change is one of the biggest problems that modern organizations face. In our fast-
changing world, the strategic imperative to change is often clear: Without doing things differently, our
company is unlikely to succeed, or last.

At its core, change leadership is working together to create a shared understanding of change required

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to execute the strategy, and how to best make it happen. But change-management research has
demonstrated time after time that organizational change initiatives fail more often than they succeed,
despite the resources put into creating change management processes.

We know that effective leadership is essential to successful change. But we wanted to understand the
differences in change leadership between successful and unsuccessful change efforts. That’s why we
recently conducted a study where we asked 275 senior executives to re몭ect on successful and
unsuccessful change efforts they’d led.

Our goal was to characterize “change-capable leadership,” de몭ne the key leadership competencies
necessary for change, and better understand leadership behaviors that could contribute to change
failures.

The executives we surveyed were all participants in our Leadership at the Peak program, which
targets executives with more than 15 years of management experience, responsibility for 500 or more
people, and decision-making authority as members of top management teams. All of them were
seasoned leaders.

Our study revealed 9 critical leadership competencies of successful change efforts and change-
capable leaders. The 9 change competencies can be further divided into 3 main categories — what we
call “the 3 C’s of change,” leading the process, and leading the people.

The 3 C’s of

Change Leadership

Researchers found that 3 skills provide the necessary connection between the process part of change
and the people part of change. These 3 C’s unite effective change leadership:

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1. Communicate.
Unsuccessful leaders tended to focus on the “what” behind the change. Successful leaders
communicated the “what” and the “why.” Leaders who explained the purpose of the change and
connected it to the organization’s values or explained the bene몭ts created stronger buy-in and urgency
for the change.

2. Collaborate.
Bringing people together to plan and execute change is critical. Successful leaders worked across
boundaries, encouraged employees to break out of their silos, and refused to tolerate unhealthy
competition. They also included employees in decision-making early on, strengthening their
commitment to change. Unsuccessful change leaders failed to engage employees early and often in
the change process.

3. Commit.
Successful leaders made sure their own beliefs and behaviors supported change, too. Change is
di몭cult, but leaders who negotiated it successfully were resilient and persistent, and willing to step
outside their comfort zone. They also devoted more of their own time to the change effort and
focused on the big picture. Unsuccessful leaders failed to adapt to challenges, expressed negativity,
and were impatient with a lack of results.

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Watch our webinar, Leading Through Change, and learn how to become a more change-
capable leader, effective in both change management and change leadership.

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Leader
Strategic change doesn’t happen on its own. Effective leaders guide the process from start to 몭nish.
Here are the 3 key competencies that are part of leading the process:

Initiate. After understanding the need for change, effective change leaders begin by making the
case for the change they seek. This can include evaluating the business context, understanding
the purpose of the change, developing a clear vision and desired outcome, and identifying a
common goal. Unsuccessful leaders say they didn’t focus on these tasks enough to reach a
common understanding of the goal. Learn more about the common challenges faced when
organizations are implementing change.
Strategize. Successful leaders developed a strategy and a clear action plan, including priorities,
timelines, tasks, structures, behaviors, and resources. They identi몭ed what would change, but
also what would stay the same. Leaders who weren’t successful said they failed to listen
enough to questions and concerns, and failed to de몭ne success from the beginning.
Execute. Translating strategy into execution is one of the most important things leaders can do.
In our study, successful change leaders focused on getting key people into key positions (or
removing them, in some cases). They also broke big projects down into small wins to get early
victories and build momentum. And they developed metrics and monitoring systems to measure
progress. Unsuccessful change leaders sometimes began micromanaging, got mired in
implementation details, and failed to consider the bigger picture.

Remember that, as organizations evolve over time, stability and change must coexist — which is not a
problem to solve, but rather a polarity to manage. To help your organization achieve its full potential,
acknowledge both poles simultaneously.

When change leaders 몭nd the sweet spot of “both/and,” they can present the change effort in a way
that others can embrace.

At CCL, we’re in the business of change. Learn how a customizable Change Leadership program
can help your organization ignite transformational and sustainable change.

Leading People Through Change
While formal change processes might be well understood, too many leaders neglect the all-important
human side of change equation. The most effective change leaders devoted considerable effort to
engaging everyone involved in the change and remembered that people need time to adapt to change
— no matter how fast-moving the change initiative.

They understand how to combat change fatigue and encourage embracing change. And they exhibit
these 3 crucial qualities of leading people:

Support. Successful change projects were characterized by leaders removing barriers to

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employee success. These include personal barriers, such as wounded egos and a sense of loss,
as well as professional barriers, such as the time and resources necessary to carry out a change
plan. Leaders of unsuccessful change focused exclusively on results, so employees didn’t get
the support they needed for the change.
Sway. In몭uence is about gaining not only compliance, but also the commitment necessary to
drive change. It is also about mapping out the critical change agents and de몭ning what “buy-in”
looks like from each stakeholder that will lead to a successful outcome. Effective change
leaders identi몭ed key stakeholders — including board members, C-suite executives, clients, and
others — and communicated their vision of successful change to them. Unsuccessful leaders
told us they were more likely to avoid certain stakeholders rather than try to in몭uence them.
Learn. Finally, successful change leaders never assumed they had all the answers. They asked
lots of questions and gathered formal and informal feedback. The input and feedback allowed
them to make continual adjustments during the change. In the case of unsuccessful changes,
leaders didn’t ask as many questions or gather accurate information, which left them without
the knowledge they needed to make appropriate adjustments along the way.

Build More Effective Change Leaders

Today’s leaders need the ability to address complex challenges and lead through change and
disruption in new and innovative ways. Build the skills needed by partnering with us to craft a
customized learning journey for your organization using our research-backed topic modules.

Available leadership topics include Communication, Emotional Intelligence & Empathy,
In몭uencing Skills,

Leading Through Change & Disruption

, Listening to Understand,
Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

LEARN MORE

Lastly, leaders should recognize that leading people through complex change is di몭cult, and all
changes, even positive ones, come at a cumulative cost. Change can drain employees — and leaders,

https://www.ccl.org/leadership-solutions/leadership-topics/leading-through-change/

Leadership Topics

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changes, even positive ones, come at a cumulative cost. Change can drain employees — and leaders,
too.

That’s why successful change leadership also requires resilience. Resilience helps people handle
change’s inherent pressure, uncertainty, and setbacks. Leaders need to build their own reserves in
support of their mental and physical health, and can guide others to face change in healthy and
sustainable ways by learning and sharing practices to strengthen leadership resilience.

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