Case study: group conflict

We were called in about two years ago by the leader of one of the biggest business units of a global technology organisation, to help with their  team. For several years they had been trying to push a transformation agenda, with little success. The team was riven with unproductive conflict and appeared to be stuck in a repetitive loop of destructive group dynamics. It was at this point they brought us in to help.

As part of the diagnosis phase, we undertook a number of steps. Firstly, we observed the group in action and codified their group dynamics. We also undertook interviews with each team member, as well as reviewing their team governance and the  work they had done on strategy development to date. From what we observed, individuals had become entrenched in increasingly polarised perspectives on the team and ways forward for the business. Within the group, advocacy prevailed over inquiry and discussions within team meetings seemed to make little progress. When we spoke to team members, it became even clearer that interpersonal conflict was out of control. When we asked one team member about their relationship with another team member, they actually responded: “if I accidentally reversed over him in a car, I would go forwards and backwards to make sure he was dead”. It was clear that the situation was out of control and that drastic intervention was needed..

As a first step towards resolving the situation we had each individual complete a 360 assessment, followed by one-to-one coaching. It became clear from this that there were a wide variety of personality styles in the team, ranging from the conflict averse to those who were totally comfortable with an all-out shouting match, so our consultants worked intensively over this period to help individuals develop greater awareness on their own leadership style, as well as the differing personality types and needs of others.. Once this process was underway we then brought together some of the individuals at the heart of the conflict in small diads and triads, deploying our consultants to mediate within these small networks. From the sum of these interventions, within a short period of time team members were able to let go of the past, develop greater trust and connection and recontract on how to work better together moving forward.

Next, we undertook a number of different actions at the team level. Firstly, we helped the leadership team to transform its group dynamic. We helped the team establish clear practices and norms for behaviour within team meetings. By sharing the codified observations we had made as part of the observation phase ,we helped them see that the their stuck patterns of communication were accentuating conflict within the team. As part of this, we introduced a wide variety of new collaboration practices that developed the capacity for collective intelligence within the team. Next, we addressed team governance. Up until this point the team (some 15 people) had met for two days every month. The way they had met to this point was to sit around a boardroom table as a unit for the whole two days. Very often, therefore, the topic at hand was only relevant to a few people within the team. This meant that, with so many onlookers to a discussion people didn’t feel comfortable surfacing potential conflict, or  there was less space to resolve it productively, when it did surface. Working with them, we helped them redesign their meeting agenda to allow a half day for small groups to break out around important topics, come to a resolution, and then report back to the wider group. Finally, since we had also discovered that the differing goals set by global functions was creating and exacerbating conflict as well, we also supported the leader of the team to work with the key global functions to ensure greater alignment and integration around goal-setting.

The end result of our involvement with the team was a transformation in how they worked together, leading to a step change in their collective performance. The team reported back that the new capabilities and practices we introduced around collective intelligence had transformed their capacity for collective leadership. The organisation achieved its best results that year due to the improved cohesion and functioning of the leadership team. As a result of our success with the team, we were invited to partner the organisation through its transformation journey over the next two years, as well as helping to develop the capacity for collective intelligence across the organisation.  

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