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Truly Constructive Conflict

Two Minute Trainings by Maria Simpson

A friend and I were talking about how different people work and how their different ways of focusing on a problem can lead to new problems even as they all work toward the same goal. It was an interesting insight, and I wanted to use it as a way of understanding how conflict in groups or teams can be generated without people even realizing the source.

One of the elements of a successful team is agreement on a clearly defined goal. Team members all have to buy into that goal and not let their personal goals of recognition or advancement get in the way of the organization’s goal for the team to be successful.

Unfortunately, even when everyone agrees on the goal, they may all have different ideas of how best to reach it. For the group we were talking about, the observation was made that one person’s focus was to be as detailed as possible, another’s to be as correct as possible, and the third’s to be as expansive as possible, to see the broadest context of the goal.

These different approaches to reaching the goal are related to personality profiles measured in assessments like the MBTI, which can provide insight into working styles. How strongly someone emphasizes the details over the larger picture relates to the emphasis on detail over scope, or the difference between looking at the trees or the forest. The emphasis on accuracy can indicate a preference for structure and order, something more dependable than flexible estimates. The ability to see a much broader goal can relate to how someone sees time, either by working in the present or near future or working toward the more distant future. Like everything else in teamwork, these three traits have upsides and downsides.

The upside to having all these traits, and others, represented on the team is that the final product will be as complete and correct as possible and address all the issues, stated or implied. And that is no small accomplishment.

The downside is that team members may insist on using their own approaches over another approach rather than using the best aspects of each, and the new problem, then, is about process, not goal. The debate about process can completely derail the discussion especially if time is running out and a deadline must be respected.

What’s the cure? A good facilitator will be able to:

1. Recognize the different approaches and be prepared to handle them for the best possible outcome, similar to managing the differences between introverts and extroverts and managing their input to advantage.

2. Balance each team member’s opportunity to speak so all perspectives are presented and given equal consideration.

3. Mediate the discussion so that areas of general agreement can be found and areas of disagreement can be discussed in enough detail for the team to reach agreement on each point. Often there will not be total agreement, but a consensus on the basics should allow the team to move forward.

With lots of time for debate these approaches will result in the best possible outcome, even if it takes some intense discussion. When time is short, some compromises that are not entirely acceptable will have to be made, but that’s the nature of compromise and progress. As long as the compromises don’t result in someone’s no longer supporting the goal or the entire process breaking down, the outcome will still be acceptable to everyone, and because of the intense discussions and different perspectives, it will probably be a much better product or outcome than could have been produced by another team that agrees more easily.

This process is an example of truly constructive conflict, and the outcome an example of much more than an excellent product; it is an example of institutional learning through challenging experience and of passing those lessons on to become part of the culture. The outcome will have been well worth the effort and the debates will have been seen as valuable learning experiences. In addition to their individual perspectives, team members will take the experience of tough debate, persuasive argument, and reasonable compromise to another team where they can help another group be equally successful.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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