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Conflict in your group? Root out these habits

Attending a business conference can be a lot like watching planned pandemonium. Hordes of humanity with their heads down, checking cellphones and exploring lists of breakout sessions — or heads up, happily greeting colleagues.
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Attending a business conference can be a lot like watching planned pandemonium. Hordes of humanity with their heads down, checking cellphones and exploring lists of breakout sessions — or heads up, happily greeting colleagues.

Such was the case at the most recent conference I attended. Portions of pandemonium were equally evident when it came time for lunch. Usually that means lining up at a ballroom buffet, but this time was different. Because it was a small conference, we were directed to a bank of elevators.

Groans rumbled across the group as we envisioned a long wait and limited progress to the top floor, where our meal and panorama of San Francisco Bay were reportedly worth the trip. Surprise — they were! The elevator ride was fast and efficient, and lunch and the view were incredible. It was a well-trained, managed and executed effort, with the staff working together as a confident, caring team dedicated to remarkable results.

The pleasure of experiencing the above scenario got me thinking: What about the other side of a great team effort — when things aren’t so great? What about working where there’s conflict?

When laboring in a group, there are bound to be tussles at times, especially if the team doesn’t have a proven, finely tuned way of operating internally or cross-functionally with others. Been there? Me, too.

How does discord develop, and how can it be remedied? What group and individual behaviors typically careen into controversy versus those that consistently converge and work well together? Although there are many resources available for taming tension and settling disputes, I’ve found three behaviors where doing one thing instead of another regularly promotes constructive collaboration or contributes to discontent.

The operative word is “instead.” Here’s how it works.

  • Communicate instead of criticizing: When negative encounters escalate, what are you thinking and not saying? What critical stories and conjectures are you harboring in your head that have not been validated? What are you not communicating?

Gravitating toward opposition avoidance instead of resolution means you are not conversing. OK, I get it. Conflict is uncomfortable, so keep your mouth shut and wait for it to go away. With little stuff this may work, but many times the struggle is still there, boiling under the surface like a volcano gathering steam before it erupts.

Wanna change that? Stop criticizing and start communicating. I don’t mean sneering and barking at others. I do mean sharing information and perceptions that others may not have in a non-threatening, non-critical manner.

Particularly in a business environment, calmly approaching animosity requires collectively connecting to produce congruent alternatives. News flash — imparting information in a helpful and favorable fashion is also the best method for cutting down on clashes occurring in the first place! Behavior that includes spewing derogatory remarks undermines group success and has to be shut down by those in charge as soon as it starts.

The better option? Transmit facts and preferences, not assumptions and indifferences. Use statements such as “I’ve found doing X will produce what we have in mind” instead of saying “You’re doing this all wrong.”

Timing is equally important. Call out friction, issues and hot buttons when they transpire, as opposed to letting them fester. Make job assignments and expectations clear, details that are often overlooked. Talk through false notions or misunderstandings with others by validating where group-think has landed and where it needs to be. Clear up inaccurate assumptions and the related adversity it causes by conveying facts and communicating instead of criticizing.

  • Listen instead of blaming: When you’re involved in disputes with a co-worker, are you listening to what the other person is saying or quietly practicing your one-up rebuttal? How do you know your take on the situation is accurate?

When emotions run high, rational thinking runs low. Take a moment to consider how much you have engaged in open-minded listening versus jump-to-conclusion blaming. When you become annoyed with another person, the soundest tactic for reaching a satisfying outcome is to look at how you contributed — intentionally or unintentionally — to the issue.

Listening to the other person instead of automatically accusing is a super starting point. When both players take this approach and listen instead of condemn, it becomes an opulent opportunity to learn and gain value from each other while generating an upbeat standard for productive go-forward interaction.

Here’s another way to tell whether you’re blaming instead of listening. There’s an old saying — in an argument, the person talking the most is listening the least — and I’ll add this: The person talking the most is often blaming the most, too. Have you made a mental list of all the things for which you’re denouncing another? Are you planning to blindside them with an irritated snipe? Or worse yet, are you kitchen-sinking — throwing in everything but the kitchen sink when you unload your aggravation onto a colleague?

Executing a sneak attack and brandishing unprofessional accusatory behavior is callous and cowardly conduct. Grow up. End blaming and begin listening. You’ll find that a reduction in disagreements will be one of many rewards that follow.

  • Collaborate, instead of alienating: What does collaboration mean to you? I see it as a productive combination of skills, cooperation and reciprocated respect. Add trust, sharing and having the other guy’s back.

That’s not all. The brightest part of collaboration is collective commitment to achieving a common goal. It’s impossible to join forces when skirmishes are repeatedly unresolved and allowed to chafe into an embittered undercurrent. When this occurs, united values, support and mutual regard eventually unravel, frequently producing alienated sub-teams.

A group should never be allowed to reach a level of discord in which some members spin off into separate alliances and produce an alienated “us-against-them” mentality. Such behavior is acidic, undercuts team achievement and must be promptly rectified.

Disagreements are going to happen. Several people working together means that different styles will be in play. It’s fantastic when harnessed and used in a creative mode; it can be frustrating and produce controversy when it’s not. Need to recover from a run-in? Dump alienation and keep collaboration. Continuously dealing with and dissolving hostilities when they materialize will facilitate, nurture and reinforce fellowship. This helps prevent colleagues from becoming uncooperative, distrustful and alienated while influencing progressive relationships and accomplishments.

As for the group that organized and served the fabulous lunch at the conference I attended, they were functioning with tremendous teamwork. A shiny example of a well-led crew, they applied the right talent and resources for amazing achievement. You know when you see it. There’s a hum, a rhythm, a buzz of synchronized energy focused on a splendid outcome. It’s wonderful to watch and even better to be a part of, feeling the rush of team success — getting things done together.

Let’s turn to you. Got conflict? Start addressing issues by fostering adoption of the positive interaction skills outlined above. Instead of criticizing, blaming and alienating, encourage improved communicating, listening and collaborating. These are the big three behaviors for mutually making bigger things happen.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.



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