leadership

Building a Better Leadership Team through Trust and Quickly Resolving Conflict

How a global oil and gas company transformed its business and behaviors to manage through change.

Companies face a dizzying amount of change in today’s global business environment, thanks to technological disruption, industry consolidation and economic uncertainty.

My consulting team was reminded of this fact recently when a global oil and gas company reached out to us. Company leaders knew that if they didn’t begin enterprise-wide business changes and cultural shifts, they might not remain competitive.

The company’s culture had a lot going for it, but leadership recognized that it was time to place greater focus on individual performance and empowerment as drivers for better business results across the organization. The executive and HR team began assessing the business model, values and behaviors, with a goal of demonstrating and reinforcing positive cultural change.

During the executive coaching and team optimization work they did with us, the company’s leaders found two factors that were critical in aligning around mutual goals: trust and conflict resolution.

Trust Is the Ultimate Vulnerability

In its widely reported study Project Aristotle, Google set out in 2012 to assess hundreds of its teams to determine why some were more successful than others. This, combined with similar research by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College, concluded that group norms—or how teammates treat each other—are key to success.

While not all norms could be universally characterized as good or bad, the bottom line of the research was this: Teams that operate in a setting of vulnerability-based trust, sometimes known as “psychological safety,” are more apt to be successful.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni notes that “trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.”

The leaders of the oil and gas company we worked with took this concept to heart and examined the following to build trust in each other: 

1. Dominant communications styles: The team took assessments to determine how each of them best communicates, and the information was shared among the team. A better understanding of each others’ communication styles—and communication approaches with each style—made conversations smoother.

2. Personal histories: Next, leaders revealed their own personal stories, opening up and allowing colleagues to learn simple things about their backgrounds—such as where they were born, their birth order, childhood challenges and job experiences. Knowing just a few key facts about each other helped the team break down any barriers and encouraged a greater level of empathy and understanding.

3. Work styles: The team examined and identified their own personal work styles through the Marshall Goldsmith exercise, the “How to Handle Me Memo.” In this exercise, each team member gives a candid and detailed description of their own style—including values, expectations, preferences, quirks and what enhances energy and what depletes it. This helps colleagues better understand how to work with each other and avoid misunderstandings—and also get a better idea of how others perceive them.  Knowing how to handle each other was key to optimal team function.

The Benefits of Healthy Conflict

It is a common business axiom that when you put two people together, you’re going to have conflict. High-performing teams must understand this and learn to manage it in healthy ways. Hint: It has a lot to do with trust.

The oil and gas executive team examined the types of conflict they encounter and the difficult conversations that arise. It was important to recognize the difference between healthy debate and destructive argument. Disagreement about ideas and concepts is one thing; personal attacks are another.

Next, the team worked through how to effectively provide feedback to productively move dialogue forward.

These exercises led to the establishment of conflict norms—essentially, sets of guidelines for how a team commits to handling disagreement, and what behaviors are expected. They can include:

Conversation and feedback guidelines; e.g., don’t make things personal, and it’s not OK to raise your voice. 
Requests for change in behavior; e.g., “I would appreciate it if you would arrive on time to our meetings.”
Recognizing that openly disagreeing on the spot in front of others is healthier than waiting, taking it offline, or doing nothing.
Landing on a next step, to determine what must happen next to resolve the conflict.
Teams willing to have the difficult conversations are more likely to resolve their conflicts in a healthy way and lessen the chance of recurrence.

Trust and conflict norms equip them with traits they need to operative effectively, especially in a rapidly changing business environment. If a CEO should suddenly depart, or there’s a supply chain interruption, or the economy takes a nosedive, the team has the tools to keep functioning at a high level.

Using these key tenets of team optimization, our oil and gas team gained alignment with each other and successfully engaged their employees in sustainable organizational change. More than half of the leaders reported that the coaching had a positive impact on their relationships with both peers and stakeholders. Even better, by increasing trust and communication, safety within the organization dramatically improved. Improving safety was not a stated goal at the outset of the project, but rather a bonus benefit of a more effective leadership team.

Mary Herrmann is managing director, executive coaching, at BPI group. As a global practice leader, she leads a team of professional coaches focused on helping organizations drive change and deliver results through proven best practices in leadership and executive team development.

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