Leading Effective Teams: Managing Group Dynamics & Conflict

Teams are established when two or more people are working together to achieve a common goal. When two or more human beings are working together, conflict is inevitable. Therefore, conflict is inevitable when working in teams. In fact, conflict is often the primary problem or issue that teams deal with. Teams are made up of individuals who come with their own set of hopes, dreams, desires, and biases. This individuality makes for very dynamic situations and leaders have to be prepared to navigate these dynamics within their groups. Many of the principles used in avoiding problems above are also applicable to managing group dynamics.

When conflict arises, the leader must be deliberate in leading the team into the conflict. This seems counterintuitive but best practices suggest that these situations must be addressed head on if they are to be handled effectively. Allowing conflict among team members to linger causes the issue to fester and ultimately erupt into a situation that can very likely cripple the team’s efforts at achieving its objective. Approaching the conflict early on and deliberately helps in removing the fuel from the fire of conflict and reduces the likelihood that the conflict will derail the team. It is also important to reframe the conflict. Unaddressed conflict can quickly move into the realm of personal attacks among team members, which can be lethal to the team. To avoid personal attacks, Mary Shapiro in her HBR Guide to Leading Teams suggests that the conflict must be reframed in such a way that it is “dehumanized”. Teams can and should constructively argue about processes but the focus must never become an attack on other team members.

Secondly, there is a great need for clarity and humility in dealing with group dynamics. These two principles operate in much the same way as discussed last week in regard to avoiding problems. Conflicts can perhaps be avoided in the first place if team members have a very clear understanding of the team’s purposes, the roles and responsibilities of each team member, and the process for working through decisions. However, if conflicts do arise, humility can help diffuse the situation. When individuals understand that they, too, are prone to flaws and misunderstandings they are more inclined to show grace to other members of the team and thereby diffuse the conflict (Eph. 4:1-3; Col. 3:13, ESV).

Lastly, it is vital that team leaders promote and exhibit patience in dealing with various group dynamics.  In James 1:19-20, Christians are encouraged to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (ESV),” all the while understanding that our emotions are fallible and highly susceptible to error.  When conflict arises on a team, members should be patient with one another.  This begins with the team leader.  As mentioned above, leaders should be examples for the team to follow.  Therefore, the team leader should be the first to exhibit and encourage patience among team members.  Patience alone will not immediately resolve the conflict but it does create space for emotions to cool off and dialogue to take place.  Once individuals have had an opportunity to step back from the situation and think, conflict resolution is often much more productive (Proverbs 14:29, 16:32, 19:11 ESV).

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot of ground this month in regard to leading effective teams.  I hope you’ve found some things you can put into practice in the teams you lead or are a part of (lead from the bottom up if you can!)

Teams are an integral part of life. Most every individual will be a part of a team at some point and some individuals will lead teams. While the fact remains that human beings are fallen creatures prone to problems and conflicts, there are steps the leader can take in avoiding or addressing those situations. Modern theories and biblical principles speak to the importance of deliberate leadership, appropriate and fair evaluation, the importance of developing an environment of trust, leading with clarity, and having an attitude of humility. While there is no way to completely remove the opportunity for problems to arise on this side of heaven, the leader who implements many of the principles we’ve discussed will be well on their way toward developing and leading a winning, effective team.

Leading Effective Teams: Avoiding Problems

Teams are made up of humans. Humans are prone to have problems. Therefore, teams are prone to have problems. There is no magic bullet that solves any and every problem that can arise among team members. However, there are some principles that, when applied, can reduce the occurrence and impact of problems.

The primary principle for avoiding problems is clarity. Simply put, team rules, expectations, and purpose should be as clear and explicit as one can possibly make them. Ambiguity is the breeding ground for misunderstandings which can then grow into problems that threaten to implode, or at least derail, the team’s efforts. Consistency is also another important principle in avoiding problems within teams. This principle of consistency is applicable in our lives as believers (James 2:1, ESV) and certainly carries over into our roles as leaders of churches, schools, and other organizations. Consistency relates to enforcing team rules and expectations among team members. When favoritism or preference begins to rear its head within a group or team, problems can quickly arise and trust begins to deteriorate. When that trust deteriorates, the foundational component of an effective team is removed and overall effectiveness suffers.

A final principle that is essential to avoiding team problems is humility. Just as prayer is an essential ingredient in so many areas of team leadership, the same can be said for humility. Each member of the team should understand that teams are made up of human beings. Human beings, since Genesis 3, have not been perfect. We are prone to failure, shortcomings, flaws, and misunderstandings. Humility certainly will not prevent any and all problems among team members but when members of the team understand that the team is made up of other, fallible human beings, an attitude of humility assists the group in showing grace to one another and fostering trust, which in turn helps to undercut the development of team problems.

Leading Effective Teams: Evaluating Performance

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked about building teams and we’ve looked at some effective ways to lead those teams.  Now we turn our focus to the importance of evaluation.  As Socrates said in Plato’s Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  In that same vein, the unexamined team is not as effective as it could be.

Leading from appropriate conceptual frameworks is important. However, a mechanism must also be in place to evaluate that leadership as well as the team’s overall performance. If not, there is no way to verifiably say that the team has been successful or served its purpose. For the purposes of this series, success is defined as achieving the teams overall objective or purpose. An evaluation of success includes examination of the leader, individual team members, and the team as a whole. Evaluation stems from accountability. From its inception, the team should operate within an environment of accountability. In fact, Patrick Lencioni has noted lack of accountability as characteristic of a dysfunctional team.

The parameters that the team holds itself accountable to and uses for evaluation should be agreed upon at the beginning of team development so that all team members understand what performance measures they will be held to and how their individual performance, and overall team performance, will be evaluated. As an added bonus, this discussion and opportunity to agree upon accountability and performance measures can assist in developing the culture of trust discussed earlier. Several pre-developed tools can be found to assist in team evaluation. However, the Harvard Business School has provided check lists that can be helpful in evaluating team performance.  You can find those here.

Leading Effective Teams: Leading the Team

Last week we looked at principles for building teams.  Once the team has been established, the work of leading the team begins. Leading the team involves everything necessary to move the team forward toward the completion of its objective or its raison d’etre. Just as noted above in the discussion concerning building the team, prayer continues to be an essential ingredient in successful team building and management. A constant focus and dependence on the Lord is an essential ingredient to effective team leadership, even among Christian leaders in secular institutions (although that focus may not be as overtly expressed in these situations).

In addition to a consistent and intense focus on the Lord, leading teams effectively requires humility. The leader must understand his limitations and approach team leadership with an appropriate estimation of himself and a firm understanding of what he brings to the team dynamic (Romans 12:3, ESV). Secondly, the leader must foster an environment conducive to trust, which Patrick Lencioni calls an essential component of effective teams. Once established, the leader must then lead in such a way as to support the continuation of that established trust. This involves being fair and consistent in the way he treats team members and being willing to self-evaluate before entering into conflict resolution with team members, which will be discussed in more detail later.

Similarly, leading a team effectively requires that the leader be what Brian Simmons, Associate Provost at Columbia International University calls, REAL (Relational, an Example, an Authority, and Loving). The leader must be relational to the members of her team. She must view them as fellow humans and co-workers instead of mere subjects to be managed and directed. She should also be willing to lead by example. In other words, she should not give a directive or lead the team in a direction in which she would not be willing to go herself.

Thirdly, she must understand the parameters of and how to appropriately wield her given authority. While humans are designed to work in teams, we are also designed to function within a hierarchy. In other words, from the very beginning we see God establishing a hierarchy of roles among humanity (Genesis 2, ESV). We are all equally valuable as human beings but we have been entrusted with various roles and authorities and the effective leader must understand her authority and wield it compassionately yet effectively. The Apostle Peter illustrates this concept well in 1 Peter 5:2-3. Although he is directly addressing pastors (shepherds) in this passage, the principles are still quite applicable to all leaders.

This leads well into the final characteristic of effective team leadership, love. Teams must be lead from a position of love and compassion. This does not mean the team grabs shoulders and sings “Kum-ba-yah” but it does mean that the team leader cares for her team members as individuals and leads in such a way that demonstrates concern for their well-being as image bearers of God (Matt. 22:39, ESV). As she focuses on being a REAL leader, the team leader will inevitably foster that previously discussed environment of trust which, as Lencioni suggests, is the sine qua non of an effective team.