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When opposites frustrate – mediate


A diverse organisation is a happy one, but managing and training teams of diverse people can be a challenge. Matthew Hill gives his top tips.

When the pressure is on within a team, the cracks will begin to show. This is often evidenced by escalating displays of emotion and tension. Sometimes a negative spiral of events can take the group from cooperation and contentment, to anger and near breakdown in a matter of months or even weeks.

It is not just external client or work pressure that is the cause. Invisible differences in job expertise and personal styles within any team lie like unexploded bombs, waiting to hurt progress and injure harmony.

Managed and trained well, however, differences can actually be used to enhance team performance, produce innovation and strengthen rapport. When ignored though, these traps will cost you time, stress and money.

We have seen competent and effective teams disintegrate as some of the most dangerous differences come to the surface and present a barrier to exchange, collaboration and even honesty amongst colleagues.

How does it happen?

Let us look at a real case. A marketing executive with an action based go-getting style with wide experience of direct response mailings and interactive marketing programmes was generating a large number of initiatives for the British pharmaceuticals market. He worked with a conservative, risk-averse scientist from the product management department. She had a deep knowledge of her customers (doctors), a track record of successful product launches and a measured approach to business. The clash was obvious, painful and damaging.

First came the disagreements about action, timing and content. From this the pair developed a reluctance to communicate openly. When this escalated we saw a referral of their dispute to a senior executive. Within the target market the new campaigns were not hitting the mark. The situation became so intense that a mediator was brought in to deal with the personal issues that arose.

He saw immediately that both people were high-calibre professionals who wished the best for their departments and the company as a whole. Further, he saw this was a clash of styles and cultures. His brilliance, however, was to see the opportunity of not just putting the fire out but to create a super-performing team from the differences he witnessed.

Taking action

Training meetings were arranged to give both parties exercises in raising self-awareness that reflected on their own styles, and the benefits and costs of their regular working behaviours. Then he developed their competence in dealing with colleagues who had varied personal styles. Finally he arrived at the $64,000 question. How could they work together in a super-effective way?

The answer was synergy. When 1+1 =3. The marketeer was producing a large volume of work but he experienced a low success rate with his output. The product manager knew what worked based on testing the market, understanding buying behaviour and being on top of research data, market measurement and the principles of piloting new initiatives.

Putting the two together in a new working relationship of 'creator' and 'tester' produced a win and a win. The number of failures went down, saving time and energy and promoting the marketeer’s personal career brand as a better executive. The product manager began to receive fewer but better initiatives that were market ready, effective and produced higher returns. Her success rate increased, as did her relationship with the marketeer.

From this real example we begin to see that managing differences positively is an opportunity for reducing negative management time, increasing collaboration between diverse groups and for producing additional revenue and profits for your organisation.

Embracing the difference and making them work

The symptoms of difference are: Complaints centered on style, different work rates, power-based conflict, poor group dynamics and aggressive or low energy speech patterns.

Instead of ignoring these signs see them as a call to action. Take notice and see if there is a synergy that can grow out of the difference. Is there a way to align outcomes whilst using differences constructively? The best performing teams of all are diverse teams. This is because, as Belbin shows us, super-performing teams need to consist of different team types contributing in different ways to make a department or project optimally effective.

The key is managing the synergy creation process. This is not magic but does require using a mediator or manager with the confidence and sophistication to separate facts from emotions, personality traits from work styles and complaints from evidence of difference. The developmental step is either to practice this yourself or bring in an expert to will help turn team conflict into profitable synergy.

The next time you witness a team in interpersonal crisis, before sighing heavily,  remember that synergy is an opportunity for cash and happiness.

Matthew Hill is a mediator and consultant at Hill Networks.

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